The Secret Election Campaigner

Our man on the inside gives a stinging account of what it’s really like on the campaign trail ahead of the 2019 election.

The Secret Election Campaigner

Our man on the inside gives a stinging account of what it’s really like on the campaign trail ahead of the 2019 election.

It was three days before parliament called the general election when I knew the farce had to be documented. This was the day that my electoral candidate was threatened with deselection at lunchtime, and then with jail at some point during dinner. 

I witnessed this in all innocence. I wasn’t there as a mole - I was there as a volunteer who genuinely believed I could help a decent person get into parliament. When they asked me to be their writer and comms co-ordinator I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I knew they’d look after me and I knew they were in this for the right reasons. What I didn’t know was the extent of the comedy gold I was about to witness.

But first I will introduce the main actors in this saga. So as not to implicate my candidate or any political party, the names are all pseudonyms. My motivation is not to embarrass anyone in particular - it is more that I want people to know how this system actually works on the ground. Who are the people we are voting for in this election, and what is the game they are playing to get into Westminster?

Candidate X 

Candidate X is a good egg who has done a lot to help the constituency long before becoming involved in politics. Candidate X has absolutely no interest in becoming a minister or becoming famous - it is simply a matter of helping the local community. Candidate X is very good with the public but very naive when it comes to the inner workings of the system. 

Election Agent

Right-hand stooge to Candidate X with legal liability for the actions of the election campaign. Very nice person with a great grasp of worldly matters but completely toothless when it comes to fighting the corner of Candidate X in the game of internal party politics.

Local Party Chairman

The ultimate enemy of Candidate X. Oversees all constituencies in the region but has own constituency to protect into the bargain. Local Party Chairman thinks Candidate X doesn’t know what they’re doing and the feeling is very much mutual.

Local Party Treasurer

Additional enemy of Candidate X. Based in same constituency as Local Party Chairman, Candidate X assumes they are both colluding together to make it harder for Candidate X and conspiring with head office into the bargain.

Lord Northerner

Acts as Candidate X’s direct line to head office and has the difficult task of keeping Candidate X on message. Friend but also foe to Candidate X, depending on mood of Candidate X and/or what Candidate X may have made Lord Northerner apologise for at head office that particular week. Straight talking and fundamentally decent, but woe betide anyone who doesn’t follow Lord Northerner’s instructions to the letter. 

48 DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION:

For reasons unknown, Candidate X saw fit to put their tormentors on speaker phone so I could hear every last detail of the threats at lunchtime and dinner. This really was some gift from the journalism gods. I suddenly became rather interested in telling the story of how on earth it was possible to get a bollocking from an eminent member of the House of Lords for overspending on your election campaign before you had actually started your campaign. I began taking notes.

It turns out that Candidate X had broken the pre-election spending limit. What really didn’t help was the fact that Local Party Treasurer only told Candidate X in July what the limit actually was, despite knowing in January. But no matter. On speaker phone, Lord Northerner seemed to have a solution:

“I’ve been to head office and fought your corner. Here’s what you need to do."

But then a 10-minute argument ensued. The tone of Lord Northerner irritated Candidate X and the phonecall ended before Lord Northerner was able to actually outline what needed to be done to solve the overspend. The conversation went off on a tangent about various bits of campaign documentation that had gone out in the months before that apparently didn’t toe the party line. Each mention of “party line” kept reminding me of this song:

It just got funnier in my head. There were visions of Sasha playing it at Shelley’s or somewhere, overlayed by the stern voice of someone who’d just nipped out from sitting in the House of Lords. And this was all going on in somebody else’s kitchen. Very distracting.

Then later it was the turn of Local Party Treasurer to weigh in, once again on speaker phone and once again it descended quite quickly:

“Listen! This is what you must do to keep you out of jail!” 

Although it was technically true that Candidate X submitting a certain invoice may spare them from jail, it was perhaps not an overly diplomatic way for Local Party Treasurer to start the conversation. The phonecall didn’t last much longer than that - this was a day when Candidate X was in no mood to listen to authority. If only Candidate X hadn’t had such a go at Lord Northerner when offering up the same solution at lunchtime (only without the jail part), the subsequent heartache in the evening would have been avoided. And how about just submitting the invoice FFS? That was also an option.

46 DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION:

The perceived wisdom is that there still won’t be enough support for Boris Johnson’s latest attempt at calling one. The Lib Dems want a people’s vote and Labour don’t really want to be campaigning in an election where Europe is a big issue, given their rather confused stance on the matter. But hang on a minute: here’s Swinson on the news with a proposal to have an election even earlier than Boris wanted, and the SNP are on board as well.

Fucking Swinson. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Lib Dems and SNP had found a bandwagon to jump on. They’ve been doing it all my life I suppose.

45 DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION:

It’s official: parliament has decreed there will be an election. Swinson and the SNP eventually backed Corbyn into enough of a corner to make him agree to it. It would have just become too embarrassing for Labour otherwise. 

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the SNP and Lib Dems stand to gain a great deal in an upcoming election. There are more than enough remainers currently sitting in Westminster to do whatever the heck they want with Europe without the hassle of an election, but quite clearly they want seats more than they want to stay in the EU. 

You can’t tell me that the EU’s deadline of Jan 31st wouldn’t be flexible if a remainer-led voting block in parliament commandeered negotiations with them. And if you’ve got time for a general election then surely you have time for a second referendum before for the deadline anyway?

But perish the thought of working with Jeremy Corbyn. The last thing anyone wants to do is miss out on the opportunity to make gains from Labour in an election. Europe will just have to wait. 

Meanwhile, back in neurotic campaign land, Candidate X collars me in absolute dread at our upcoming meeting with Local Party Chairman. Now an election has been called there will be a meeting tomorrow to discuss the campaign team and the possibility of pacts with two opposition parties.

Time for some G&Ts in front of Newsnight. This is how Candidate X likes to think they are relaxing, but in fact it just winds them up even more before bedtime. Candidate X was unrepentant that tomorrow we would tell Local Party Chairman in no uncertain terms that they are not running the show. It would be us who put the campaign team together, not anyone else in the local party. 

“Pick your battles,” I said. "Just wait to hear what Local Party Chairman has to say on the matter.” Given it was ultimately up to this person to fight our corner with the opposition parties and given also that it would probably be Local Party Chairman’s own constituency that would be offered up as a sacrificial lamb in exchange for opponents standing down in our constituency, perhaps we should stay on good terms. If they wanted some party cronies to have final sign off on campaign leaflets then so be it - I’d happily exchange that for 20,000 votes. 

44 DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION:

Oh shit, the croissants have run out. As much as I love living with Candidate X and family (they are convivial socialites of the highest order - couldn’t be more welcoming), the eating of meals is fairly arbitrary. Breakfast time can range from 7am to midday and you don’t know for sure if it’s going to come at all, but it’s normally supreme when it does. 

Nevertheless, it was time for me to take back control of breakfast. I suggested Candidate X went to Marks & Spencer for pineapple, beetroot and lemons. It was to be liquified breakfast from now on, at a time of my choosing. 

But first things first: Candidate X will soon be live on local radio, patched in on Facetime from the study. This was the first official day of election campaigning and a great opportunity to set the tone and let our opposition know we mean business.

Candidate X absolutely nailed it. The presenter was challenging and incredulous at times, but ultimately fair. Candidate X was equal to everything and showed exactly the kind of alternative thinking and style of delivery that attracted me in the first place.  

An excellent start. We’re all in high spirits around the kitchen table when Candidate X returns from the supermarket in time for the meeting with Local Party Chairman. But things soon took a turn.

Before the meeting had even started, Candidate X turned around from making the coffee and said to Local Party Chairman (whilst pointing across the kitchen) “you’re going to do things my way!” And this was during the smalltalk phase. There were three or four of us around the table who all stopped dead in our tracks. There was to be no more smalltalk now - there simply couldn’t be. 

And so followed a strange couple of minutes of awkwardness where Candidate X finished making the coffee and laid out the biscuits. We all looked at our phones or shuffled papers around - there was nothing else appropriate to say or do. You can probably guess how it went when we eventually started. It went so badly that Candidate X refused to sign the Compact document that made them the official candidate to stand in the election. 

Given the previous spats with head office about overspending, it was rather a gamble for Candidate X to not sign the one thing that secured them in the role. Despite being announced as the candidate on local radio that morning, there are plenty of occasions in the past when a party has deselected a candidate early on in the campaign.  

The G&Ts/Newsnight debrief was interesting that evening.

I can’t recount it word for word (it took two excruciating hours), but my response to Candidate X’s opening gambit of “how do you think the meeting went today?” included words like “embarrassing”, “selfish", “pointless”, and “overplaying your hand". I definitely remember saying “this is a microcosm of what you’ll face in Westminster - as a voter there’s no way on earth I’d want you representing me in Westminster if you carry on like that.” And I bloody meant it. 

“I’m out of my depth - I think I’m just gonna stop. I don’t need this,” was the thrust of the response. 

Well that’s just great. On the very first day of official election campaigning, my candidate is seriously considering falling on their sword and their head office now has the power to get rid of them because Candidate X was too obstinate to sign on the dotted line. And they might just be sent to jail into the bargain.

How on earth is this going to play out?

TO BE CONTINUED...

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