All the talk of Labour MPs suddenly losing faith in the principles of parliamentary democracy and legging it in the direction of well-paid mayoral or police commissioner jobs has raised the possibility that the major parties (and maybe some minor ones) are going to have to fight a number of by-elections to replace the soon-to-be dear departed.
Thusly, a weary nation faces prospect of yet even more “on message” youngsters tweeting about how much they love their constituency during Prime Minister’s Questions and angrily pointing at dog poo for photographers at their local paper.
Joy unrestrained. No, really.
Still, we at Total Politics are always here to help, so here are five top tips if find you have been selected as your party’s candidate for a by-election.
1. Know your area
It could be that you are native to the area in which you are standing because, by a combination of dedication and hard work over a number of years, you have earned the recognition of your contemporaries and the admiration of your party’s head office. You will know the local area and its inhabitants like the back of your hand, and you could navigate your way around the local housing estate blindfolded and in the dark, and still manage to stop for a battered saveloy at the chippy on the way back to the campaign office.
More likely, either you or your parents are mates with the elite, you’re a former or current special adviser, or have a load of wedge that your party’s hoping you’ll donate to its coffers at some stage. Still, however you’ve managed to get into the Parachute Regiment: congratulations! But the next couple of weeks are going to be tough, especially if you get selected for a seat that [cue sinister music] isn’t in London.
If you are the sort of person that has never ventured beyond Watford Gap services, or gets a nosebleed at the thought of not being within a five minute radius of a Starbucks, then plan ahead to avoid embarrassment.
A cursory glance at Wikipedia is a good first step, as well as sounding out friendly MPs in surrounding areas who can alert you to the issues and campaigns that are currently underway. It goes against all the training you will receive if and when you become a Member of Parliament but, if in doubt, DON’T speak first and ask for clarification later.
2. Be nice to the volunteers and don’t patronise the locals
You see a line-up of hostile faces as you arrive at the campaign office. You are not feeling the love and feel a little bit intimidated, but look at it from their point of view. They’ve had someone foisted on them who is on first name terms with the leadership, drinks Earl Grey tea, and calls dinner “supper”.
Don’t try and get all “We’re all in this together” on them, and explain that they are doing it, not for you, but the common good. These people are in local politics and they can smell, as the phrase goes, the excrement of a male cow at ten paces and identify the lure of a £65k salary plus expenses at even further distance. Thank them graciously for their assistance, say that you hope to get to know them all in time, and say you will be relying on them for help in getting to know the local area and its inhabitants.
Out on the streets, remember that a whole world exists beyond the M25’s walls that was never dreamed of in your philosophy, as both Romeo and Hamlet nearly said. If a single mother is trying to explain to you how difficult she’s finding everything, don’t interrupt her to tell her that you read a spiffing pamphlet on Social Disengagement and the Electoral Dichotomy once that tackled this knotty problem. You’ll get a reputation as an out of touch arse who isn’t interested in “real people.” For clarity: there is no definition of a “real person” beyond that everybody thinks that they are one and that they alone are representative of this group.
3. Beware of egos
Your party will try and get a “handler” for you – a nearby MP to manage your campaign for you. In the febrile atmosphere of a by-election, the arrival of an outsider means that things are liable to get out of hand. MPs are not known for their sensitivity towards the feelings of others, but they are self-proclaimed experts on everything. More than likely, within five minutes of your MP turning up he will have alienated your agent, offended the volunteers, and irritated the bloke in the local cornershop by being 5p short for his Crunchie.
Careful smoothing over is required to keep the show on the road. Assure your volunteers that his mumblings of “Couldn’t organise an orgy in a brothel” is just his little joke, and you know how hard and how well they are working.
Once everything has settled down, your MP will be a valuable asset to the campaign as long he or she’s under the impression – be it true or otherwise – that they are in charge.
4. Organise sampling teams at the count
It’s important to know where your party is strong and weak within the constituency, in order that a strategy can be devised ahead of the next general election. The count is the only place that this can be done, as results are not broken down at ward level. Both you and your volunteers will be exhausted beyond words by this point, but it is worth stationing a couple of them to jot down the rough share of the vote in each ballot box for future reference.
Promise them a drink – whatever time you all finish – to say thank you. And hold to that whether you win or lose.
5. Don’t be a sore loser or a smug winner
And talking of winning or losing, make sure you act with a degree of grace, whatever happens. By-elections are strange events where the politics and pressures of a bog-standard general election are perceived by the punters not to apply. An abundance of mad third party candidates, independents, Robert Kilroy-Silk, and blokes dressed as chickens will be sharing the stage with you at the count.
If you win, don’t count on this being down to your excellent candidacy; the voters could have selected you because they were irritated with the government, wanted to give the opposition a kicking, or any number of other reasons that don’t apply when the question isn’t, “Who do you want to run the country?” but rather, “Which one of these chumps will see us through to the next general?”
If you win, remember that history is littered with vague recollections of by-election victors who were relieved of their seat at the next election, just as it is by unsuccessful candidates who stormed to power after losing previously.
May the Force be with you all.