It’s exactly 6 months since the results were declared in Scotland’s local authority elections. Normally you’d expect a cynical partisan hack such as myself to be putting together a ‘look at all these Labour manifesto promises hanging in the air half-a-year on’ type post, but to be honest, what’s the point? They’ve got another 4 1/2 years to make an Archie of it, so we’ll save that bit of analysis for another day. Maybe I can post that particular blog the day Glasgow’s free municipal wi-fi gets switched on.
But the ‘anniversary’ (OK, I’ll be honest, I was looking for something to blog about and my eyes alighted on the calendar) prompted a bit of thought from me about the last year and a bit and what I’d been doing.
You’ll sometimes hear (usually beaten) candidates declare afterwards “I enjoyed every minute of the campaign”. Do not believe them; it’s a wee white lie. If I’d been deemed important enough to have a microphone shoved in my face immediately after my declaration, I’d have forced a grin (an unappealing sight at the best of times) and utter the same banality. It sounds better than the alternative – “It was grand, but sometimes I just wanted to neck a bottle of MD 20/20 and stay in my pyjamas for a weekend” – and gets the retrospection out of the way sharpish.
There are plenty of bits of a campaign that are awful, depressing, soul-destroying, infuriating, annoying, or just plain crap. Getting called an “ugly fucking rat” at someone’s doorstep (possibly right on the first point, failing their Zoology exam on the last). Realising you’ve missed the only bus for the next hour and trying to jump a taxi to the workday, only to remember it’s Old Firm day. Gazing out of the window at work as darkness covers another minging February evening and knowing you’ll be squelching your way from close to close delivering leaflets taken from a box that seemingly has no bottom.
Of course, those kind of moments stick out in the mind more. I can honestly say they were far outweighed by the always surprising willingness of folk to tell some complete stranger at their door their beliefs (and let’s face it, looked from afar it is a fairly strange way to spend a Sunday afternoon), the camaraderie of the campaign team,
And cards on the table here, having box upon box of leaflets going through doors, exhorting people to vote for you, with a nice colour headshot and “VOTE MACKIE – 1” emblazoned on them, is a wee ego boost. I am but a fallible creature.
Rewind the clock about a year from polling day, to just after the Scottish Elections.
Myself and a few pals were having a chat about the next test, the council elections. Either at my suggestion or someone else’s, the idea of me standing came up. There may have been some drink involved. Anyway, after a few weeks of umming and aahing about it, I decided to go for it. I genuinely thought really seriously about it, firstly because you don’t want to let your constituents down and make an arse of it, particularly in the a city not reknowned for its high quality municipal governance. Secondly, because you don’t want to let your party down, especially the activists giving up vast quantities of their time and money to help win elections. And thirdly, because the thought kept cropping up, “There must be loads of folk much better than me out there”.
But I decided it was worth throwing my hat in the ring, as a first step anyway. In political parties, it’s not as simple as that. All candidates have to undergo vetting, which sounds worse that it is. The Mandelsonian era of New Labour seems to have left people with an image of thumbscrews and mind-control rays when it comes to candidate selection, but the reality is more prosaic. It’s just to determine whether you’re the right person for the gig, a kind of pre-interview in advance of the real thing. After filling in my application form and collecting a referee or two, a day of various interviews and sessions at a Central Glasgow hotel ensued, and a few weeks later my
Wonka Golden Ticket letter confirming me as an approved candidate came through the post.
In between the vetting and the approval, I’d spoken to a couple of people in Govan about the possibility of me standing there. They were happy for me to throw my hat in the ring, and in October I stood in front of a selection meeting and gave my wee five-minute “vote for me” speech. Whether it made any difference, or whether folk had an idea of how they were voting before entering the hall, I don’t know, but I can tell you I was bricking it. My left leg involuntarily tapped away as I tried to vocalise the reasons why I wanted to be a councillor. I’d given speeches before to National Conference, appeared on telly for work-related stuff, faced the wrath of Jeremy Paxman in a couple of episodes of University Challenge, but I can honestly say that night in the Pearce Institute was one of the most nervous of my life, I guess because I personally had a big stake in the proceedings. The membership must have felt the leg-tapping was not a handicap to being a candidate in Govan, and I was selected to stand alongside incumbent Cllr and Group Leader, Allison Hunter, and Tahir Mohammed. I repaired to Brechin’s across the road for a celebratory (and calming) Babycham.
What can I say about the campaign itself? It whizzed by alright, a haze of leaflet runs, canvass sessions, Saturday afternoons at Govan Cross handing out leaflets, introducing myself as “one of your candidates” (which took me a long while to get a hang of) to complete strangers, the sinking feeling as you look down your canvass sheet and see 14 ‘Outs’ in a row, falling asleep on the 34 bus after an evening of leafleting in the howling rain, getting suited and booted for our manifesto launch in George Square, realising we had thousands of newspapers in storage at the other end of the city and no-one with a car available to pick them up, and all the rest.
Did I mention I was Organiser as well?
What I’ll always remember about those months are the campaign team. They were (and are) a joy to work alongside, dedicated, hard-working, never complaining even when I sent them off to a street of tenements in the dark with a sack of newspapers that would cripple Charles Atlas. They were funny, supportive, constructive, bright, unceasing, and I could hand out fifty quid notes and gold bars to them every day for the last decade and still not come close to repaying the debt I owe them for all their hard work. After all, I had a life-changing prize at the end of the campaign if all went well (spoiler: it didn’t). They were doing it because they believed in the party, the cause, and the candidates, for nothing more than the satisfaction of doing it. They slogged their guts out, and while, like any normal human, have my moments of sorrow for myself, my biggest regret is not giving them the victory the worked so, so hard for.
Polling Day from my perspective was oddly relaxing. I stood for a shift outside a few polling stations, chatting to folk entering the buildings and handing out ‘How To Vote’ cards, asking people to use their preferences in a particular way so as to maximise the number of SNP councillors elected. Polling was ‘brisk’, because polling is always ‘brisk’. 10pm arrived, and instead of the traditional rush to the SECC for the count, we went our separate ways, to reassemble at 9am on Friday – May 4th – for the results.
The count itself was a strange affair, impersonal and sterile. Gone were the rows of tables with papers dumped on straight from the ballot box, three people grabbing handfuls and gradually working through, counting and sorting. Instead there were columns of LCD panels flashing up images of ballot papers after they’d went through a scanner. I’m not much of a romantic, and have the MP3 playlists to prove it, but the clinical effieceny of the operation meant the whole event was missing something palbably human. And, of course, they weren’t that efficient in the end up anyway.
So the machines work their way through votes and wards, until we arrive at Ward 5: Govan. You’re summoned, along with the other candidates and agents, to a curtained-off area backstage guarded by blazers. Evidentally I didn’t appear much of a candidate (and who can argue with that?), as I was greeted with, “CANDIDATES ONLY, PAL” as I approached the entrance. “A bit like going backstage at T in the Park”, I obviously didn’t think at the time but have subsequently added to my memory by way of adding some colour to an otherwise fairly dull anecdote, as I flashed my pass. Inside was the lecture theatre of a travelling university, 20-odd seats facing a wee projector screen. With our 14 candidates, plus the election agents, and some hangers-on who strictly speaking should have been elsewhere, it was standing room only.
It would be nice to be able to say what happened next was burned in my mind for all eternity, but it was far too dull for that. The Returning Officer got up, rattled through some procedural stuff, stuck a spreadsheet on screen, then went through the stages of the count as figures popped in and out of existence in each subsequent column. At the first count, I knew I was in bother, and my second running mate was stuffed. There was a wee moment when a couple of candidates were elimnated in quick succession and it appeared their transfers had carried well over to myself, but like Scotland going one up against Brazil, it merely angered the gods. At the end the RO declared the winners, and that was that.
Govan being Govan – the sitting councillor being our Group Leader, half of the ward in Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, and the fact we’d ambitiously stood 3 candidates, it was subject to a wee bit more media attention that most. The three of us filed out of the “room”, behind the victorious Labour candidates, camera lights glaring into our eyes. I remember pacing behind Nicola & Allison as they walked round to the front to do so impromptu interviews, I guess in my head at the time wanting to show solidarity in our disappointment, but was promptly elbowed out the way by some camera-hungry types eager to be seen in shot. I stepped off to the side by five feet and became a civilian again.
In the couple of months after polling day, I vowed to all and sundry, “Never Again”. There could’ve been a by-election to become President of the Galaxy with me the sole nominee, and I’d have knocked it back. With the benefit of some chronological and psychological distance, I honestly don’t know if I’d stick my name for another election in the future. Without trying to sound pompous or preening, I hope I’m a relatively sharp and honest man, and I’d like to think I’d do justice to being an elected representative, both for my hypothetical constituents and my political beliefs.
There’s nothing unique about what’s written above; you could find a thousand similar stories if the possessors of them were as self-absorbed as I, and willing to hammer out a couple of thousand words on the subject.
It’s just as I said, I looked at the calendar and had a think back to what had been. And what might have been.