2019 General Election Day 7: Won’t someone think of the candidates?

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More election campaigns end like this than end in victory.

One thing we don’t talk about too much during the election is the experience of being a candidate or a key member of their campaign team in an election campaign. Obviously, we talk about candidates in lots of other ways, but we often reduce them down to being a local chess piece for their party, ignoring all that they go through just to be there, even before the campaign itself starts.

Before the various membership surges in political parties a few years ago, there was the tantalising prospect that total party membership in the UK would drop below 300,000, thus making it less than 0.5% of the population which would mean that rounded to the nearest whole number, no one was a member of a political party. While that wasn’t to be, it is worth noting that being a member of a party is a rather rare thing to be, and that those who choose to be candidates — at any level — are even rarer still. It may seem that there are lots of people who want to be MPs, but consider that across all the political parties there are only a few thousand people who’ve properly engaged in the process to become one.

The process of being approved and selected usually takes a lot of time and commitment for a candidate, even for those standing in seats where their party might not be expected to have much of a chance, but at the end of that process they’d get to experience everything about being a candidate in a general election.

Unless they’re candidates for the Brexit Party in a Conservative seat, of course. Now, the way in which they were appointed and selected might have been a bit eyebrow-raising, but they were still 300-plus people who until yesterday lunchtime had been gearing themselves up to fight a general election campaign, and now aren’t going to. Some have already invested lots of money and time in their now-aborted campaigns, but all of them would have been at a stage of thinking that anything was possible. By now, they should have done all the paperwork needed to be a candidate (nominations close on Thursday afternoon, so it could be interesting to see how many might have already submitted their forms and refuse to withdraw) and probably feeling the rush that it was going to happen, and daydreaming about how they might win, what they’d say in their speech at the count and everything else.

Now, I’m not going to feel too much sympathy for people whose raison d’etre was ensuring we got the most damaging Brexit resolution possible, but it is interesting to think of those who were expecting to be in this election but now weren’t and are finding themselves stood down for party reasons or, more sadly, standing down for personal and family reasons.

One thing we don’t talk about much outside the circle of political activists is the phenomenon of “candidatitis”, which takes two main forms, often within the same campaign. Both are characterised by candidates getting into a bubble of their own and refusing to accept any evidence to the contrary. The most common form is the candidate in a hopeless seat or campaign convinced that they’re going to win. They spoke to five people today who told them that they might consider voting for them, and that obviously means they’re winning over the people and are definitely going to win. It can be amusing and endearing right up until they start insisting that they need more resources, more support, more leaflets, more canvassers and definitely aren’t leaving their seat to go help anywhere else. The other sort is rarer, but possibly trickier to deal with, and is when a candidate in a winnable, or even safe, seat has a sudden crisis of confidence. Usually it comes when they’ve been out canvassing, and found that someone they are sure would always vote for them is a bit negative or even just non-committal this time. That’s obviously a sign that everyone has turned against them and they’re doomed. (This is also why agents don’t like letting candidates see canvassing returns and data because they’ll always pick out the worst parts to obsess over)

Candidate management is one of the important skills in an election, and one we don’t talk about too much. Even without candidatitis setting in, there’s a whole lot of work to be done in making sure they use their time effectively in a campaign. A friend of mine who’s working as an agent in this election — and if you didn’t know, agents are legally responsible for the candidate during the election — described it as like adopting a very eager child for five weeks, though others are also known for referring to the candidate as merely the “legal necessity” required for them to run a campaign. It’s very easy to descend entirely into election mode and forget that everything else exists, and it’s often important to have someone to remind a candidate that they need to eat, drink, sleep and spend time with friends and family during a campaign.

So in the midst of everything else going on in this election, do remember that a lot of it involves people doing a thankless task for little to no reward and the prospect of getting to find out just how few people actually like them at the end of it. For our democracy to work, we need thousands of people like that…

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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