A year ago, SIMON SPRAGUE, right, says he had no involvement in politics. Earlier this month, he was the rookie candidate in a hotly contested marginal seat in the General Election. Here’s some of the things that he learned on the campaign trail
About a year ago, I walked into my first meeting of the Croydon Liberal Democrats.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know that after months of shouting at the TV and being an armchair critic, I wanted to step up and do something to help my community. Over the months since, things escalated, to the extent that somehow, a couple of weeks ago I stood as the LibDem candidate for Croydon Central in the General Election.
Against a backdrop of national disappointment for the LibDems, and the Remain movement more generally, I was pleased to have more than tripled our vote share in Croydon Central, taking votes off both Labour and the Conservatives, and relieved not to have let in a hard Brexiteer in the process.
The whole experience was something of a rollercoaster. Having had time to recover (and catch up on Christmas shopping, writing of Christmas cards and all the things that November and December are normally filled with), I have had time to reflect on the experience.
1. People are lovely on the doorstep, even if they disagree…
Having been initially nervous about knocking on doors to ask people to vote for me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my interactions with voters were overwhelmingly positive. Even when meeting people with very different views, things remained civil. Many thanked me for standing even as they said they would not be voting for me. Of the many hundreds of doors I knocked on over the course of the campaign, I can count those that turned unpleasant on the fingers of one hand.
The low point was probably the couple in Addiscombe who told me that if it was too expensive to put immigrants in prison, they ought to be hanged – I found it shocking that such views exist in 2019, but this was very much the exception.
2. … whereas on social media they are much more likely to let rip
If I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of people out in the real world, nothing could have been more different about my experience on social media.
I had only really dabbled in Facebook before, but upon becoming a candidate I ventured into the world of Twitter for the first time. I was shocked by the level of aggression and antagonism bandied about by people who otherwise (I assume) are civil to one another. I found that the most pernicious abuse came through Facebook.
Having seen other candidates’ experiences online, I am perfectly aware that my own experience was very much at the tame end of the spectrum – yet it still shocked me. In an attempt to try to understand where so much anger directed at an unknown candidate in a non-target seat could come from, I decided at one point to investigate further.
What I did, perhaps unwisely, was to click on the profiles of the senders of many of the most unpleasant comments. One in particular stuck with me – having clicked on the profile, I started to understand where such anger had come from. It was very easy to find the sender on LinkedIn. Having had a successful business for many years, it became apparent that the business had folded and that he had for the past decade or so they had moved from job to job every few months.
I don’t pretend to understand the circumstances or justify his aggression online, but I can start to see why someone in such a position might be angry, and want the kind of easy change offered by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s nationalist and populist approach.
3. Most candidates have instincts to find common ground…
It was a huge pleasure to get to know many of the other candidates over the course of the election. In talking to them at hustings and other events, it became apparent how much overlap there was in our beliefs.
It strikes me that the party political system forces the homogenisation and centralisation of thought into just a few, often grossly over-simplified options, when in fact those representing their parties have far more nuanced and detailed views. Our society faces so many truly complex challenges that cannot be dealt with in a headline or with election-time giveaways, and if there is one thing that surprised me in the brief chats I had with other candidates, it was the degree of agreement.
How then, do we move from candidates willing to collaborate and cooperate to a Parliament filled with such staunch multidirectional opposition and partisanship? I suspect the answer lies in the desire of many to win and hold on to power. The tendency of a candidate at hustings merely to read from centrally provided and approved attack points reveals a different approach to getting elected – one in which loyalty to the party structure and sticking to the party message is seen as paramount.
4. …even if their parties fail to do so at a national level
Shortly before nominations closed (at which point one can no longer drop out as a candidate), I received a flurry of no doubt well-intentioned emails, orchestrated by the People’s Vote campaign. The text of each message was almost identical – the senders were asking me to stand aside to help Labour win in Croydon Central.
I did not stand aside. While I understand the intent of those who sent those emails, I think they were based on a flawed assumption. They assumed that were the LibDems to not stand in a seat, that all the votes which otherwise would have gone to the LibDem candidate would somehow “revert” to Labour. In fact, on the doorstep we heard from many former Conservative voters who could not bring themselves to back Boris Johnson, but would never vote for Labour, especially under Jeremy Corbyn – these voters were choosing between the Tories and Lib Dems.
Indeed, the final result showed a bigger drop in support for the Conservatives than for Labour (and that even if every single LibDem vote had gone to the Conservatives, Labour’s Sarah Jones would still have won). In this election, we saw some great examples of parties working together effectively, even if there could have been more effective cooperation in many areas. In particular, I sincerely hope that relations between Labour and the LibDems will improve in the coming years – whilst we differ on the specifics of how to achieve a better society, we have many shared end goals.
5. The constituency MP role is underestimated
As well as campaigning in Croydon Central, I also spent time supporting Liberal Democrat candidates in other local seats, chiefly Tom Brake (now the former MP for Carshalton and Wallington). This brought home the extent to which the constituency role of an MP can make a meaningful impact on their community.
In his 22 years as MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom completed more than 150,000 pieces of casework for his constituents, and it was telling to meet even Leave-voting residents on the doorstep who felt genuinely sad that, because of Brexit, they would not be able to support him this time. Almost everyone had a story about how Tom had helped them, from the man who remembered being awarded a school prize at age 11 to a lady whose disabled son had been helped through the complex systems of support by Tom. His successor has big shoes to fill, and we would all do well to remember the constituency role of our MPs among the hubbub of national politics.
6. Issues affecting voters are complex and nuanced
Shortly before the first hustings, I read all the major manifestos from cover to cover. Having seen the painstaking detail which goes into Liberal Democrat policy-making at party conference (not totally without its flaws, it has to be said), I have to hope that there is sufficient detail behind many of the policy promises of the other parties.
Most of the challenges that our country faces cannot be solved simply by varying taxing and spending in one direction or the other, but require the detail to be focused on. Indeed, one of my great frustrations over the past few years has been the over-simplification of the issues surrounding Brexit, but I guess at this stage this is somewhat of a moot point – we have to cross our fingers and see what happens…
I recall a long conversation on the doorstep with a voter who explained that she was struggling to juggle a job, a mortgage, caring for a loved one with dementia and supporting her university-educated adult children, living at home and unable to get on the housing ladder. She worked too much to get sufficient financial support to assist with care, but not enough to be able to fund the care outright herself. Her situation reflects multiple failings of the system – care provision and its funding, a lack of well-paid jobs even for university graduates, and a lack of affordable housing.
There is no one solution to help her – and as long as we treat such issues as separate rather than focusing on the kind of society we want to live in, manifestos will continue to be a list of promises. I like to think our manifesto this year was more integrated than most – we recognised that if we enacted policy in the right way by addressing, for example, the housing crisis, we could simultaneously reduce our carbon emissions and tackle poverty and inequality. This integrated cross-department approach to policy-making doesn’t work if the focus is on headline-grabbing tax and spending promises, but it does address the often integrated issues which voters experience in their everyday lives.
7. Campaigning is still extremely manual
One thing that surprised me – but somehow in a good way – was how manual political campaigning still is in 2019. While social media undoubtedly plays a role, so much of campaigning still relies on knocking on doors, standing in the rain and pushing leaflets through letterboxes. I’m sure some will believe that much of this effort is wasted, but in my experience having conversations with people face-to-face really did make a difference. I find it reassuring that this human connection still holds power, even in the face of 24-hour news and social media.
8. The voting system makes it hard for smaller parties to breakthrough
As a third-party candidate in what has traditionally been viewed as a Labour-Conservative battleground, I felt the impact of our broken First Past The Post voting system perhaps more acutely than most. So often on the doorstep I heard, “…well, I’d like to vote for you but I’m scared that the Labour/Conservative [delete as appropriate] candidate will get in if I do…”.
It seems unlikely that the system will be changed any time soon, particularly until Labour changes its own position, but one only needs to look at the impact of more proportional systems such as Single Transferable Vote in places where they exist (for example in Scotland and Northern Ireland) to see the potential. In over-emphasising support for major parties, FPTP extinguishes the voice of minor party supporters and gives major parties unfettered power.
It remains to be seen how the Conservative Party will wield this power, but the first couple of weeks don’t look promising. Like many, I perhaps naively hoped that Boris Johnson would use a large majority to tack to a more moderate, conciliatory position. The reality appears to be exactly the opposite.
9. Speaking out against things that are wrong is both simple and hard
At hustings after hustings, I found myself to be the one speaking up against injustice and discrimination. I spoke out against the Conservative candidate who answered a question on immigration by immediately talking about criminals. I spoke out against the litany of offensive and discriminatory remarks made by the Prime Minister, and those who would act as apologists for his comments.
Every time I found myself in a position to speak up, I found it a little easier. It strikes me that we all need to continue to speak out when we see or hear things that aren’t right, because if we don’t, such behaviours will become normalised, and make speaking out harder. Indeed, the emboldening of the far-right and those who share their views since the election is concerning, and mirrors much of what has been seen in the United States since the election of Trump.
Standing up against such hate speech is not the response of politically-correct millennial snowflakes; it’s defending our British values of tolerance, fairness and equality.
Frankly, it’s just sticking up for good manners, which is what I thought they were supposed to teach you at Eton.
10. Community politics is due a revival locally in Croydon
In the face of all of this, and the electoral disappointment that many of us moderate, centrist remoaning snowflakes have experienced, I have hope.
I have hope because I, like all Liberal Democrats, have always believed that change comes from the ground up. I have seen first-hand the impact which community organisations and groups are already having on their communities. The solution to many of Croydon’s challenges – from knife crime to planning – are best decided upon and delivered by the community themselves, coordinated and funded appropriately by government.
I firmly believe that if politicians are prepared to loosen control and empower communities, communities are up for the challenge. This groundswell of support for community politics, and frustration with over-centralisation of decision-making into the Town Hall and in Westminster also gives me hope that the Liberal Democrats may yet be able to offer something different to Croydon’s political future.
For now, we need to Get Christmas Done.
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