Robert Bartram: Spare a thought for the election footsoldiers

Written by Robert Bertram on 15 May 2017 in Opinion

The hoards of exhausted and overworked party officials are the real winners of any general election campaign.

We see politicians all the time, but we don’t often get to see the real winners of an election campaign. They are very rarely allowed out in public. In fact, they are usually only seen on election night itself. As the results come rolling in, and whilst TV reporters interview their political leaders, all we get are glimpses of blurred, ghostly profiles milling around the respective Party HQs.

For these nameless phantoms, the campaign lasts not for four weeks, but in some cases up to four or five years, the length of a full parliament.  These are people who work full-time for the political parties, whose day-job is to ensure that one day, their party – their employer – is elected to government. It is they who are the real winners of any election campaign.

Whether they are winning or losing on election night, ecstatic or heart-broken, there is one thing we can be certain of: they will be exhausted. Prior to the campaign itself, the job is reasonably 9 to 5ish, as normal as any other normal job. But as the campaign draws closer, staff will arrive earlier and leave later. Tempers will start to fray. Then, once the election is called, for four consecutive weeks – seven in the case of the current campaign – they face an eighteen-hour-a-day adrenaline rush without a lunch break or weekend in sight. Instead, they are obliged to cope with irascible and petulant politicians, who, having been kicked out of their Westminster offices, de-camp to the Party HQs.   

I myself worked on Tony Blair’s historic election campaign of 1997, joining the ‘Projection Taskforce’ – which presented the public image of the party – as its administrator, exactly twelve months before the election itself.

It was my first paid job. I was charged with distributing election materials – leaflets, posters, stickers, the manifesto – to regional offices, who in turn disseminated them to the constituencies. Excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, I got to go to press conferences, performing the highly specialist task of passing around the microphone for journalists’ questions. I arranged the VIP seating at that year’s party conference and drew up the campaigning schedule for Blair’s election tour around the country. Come the campaign itself, I drove around the country as one half of Prescott’s ‘advance’ team for the crucial last five days, parading my self-importance as much as I could.

Here I was, just 24, rubbing shoulders with some of the most talked-about people in the country. But it wasn’t just that I was bumping into – at one point literally – the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. No, what struck me about my year at the heart of New Labour, was the dedication of my colleagues, and the endless checklist of things we needed to complete to ensure victory.

These people were not swivel-eyed policy wonks, political anoraks, or for that matter, Blairite control-freaks. No, they were just ordinary people who just happened to work for a cause in which they believed: the need for a reforming Labour government. Unlike the politicians themselves, who, following victory, could expect a post in government, there was no tangible, concrete reward for the efforts of Party staff. Some had permanent posts but most, especially younger members of staff like myself, had short-term contracts that expired soon after polling day. They certainly weren’t in it for the money, either.   

And they also worked, very, very hard – coupled with a healthy disdain for the politicians themselves. Action was the order of each day, with people always on the move, either furiously banging away at their computers or running from one end of the office to the other. This was set against a mood music of constant chatter, shouts and even screams. To my knowledge, there was no blood, but certainly a great deal of sweat and tears. The Press Office, on the phone all day, would make themselves hoarse selling Labour’s policies to journalists in an effort to avoid the press stitch-ups of the past. By comparison, on-the-record interviews for politicians were a fireside chat.

Then there was the ‘Key Seats’ unit, who provided logistical support to the agents, organizers and activists in the constituencies that we had to win. No mean feat, given that each candidate seemed to believe that the unit was designed especially for them and no-one else. The Policy Unit ensured that each manifesto commitment was fully costed and workable – the easy bit – but then had to patiently explain it all to their political masters.

Attacks from the Tories were dealt with by the Rapid Rebuttal and Response Unit, which would have been difficult enough, had it not been for the Labour hierarchy’s insistence that they rebut and respond even more rapidly. Each team could claim they were pivotal to victory; each of them would be right. Success in ’97 can be measured not only by Blair’s huge majority, but also by the fact that both the Tories and Lib Dems went on to adopt Labour’s tactics and techniques.

By the early hours of June 9th, we should know who will be in government for the next five years. But as you return to work, the ghosts of the campaign will be crawling into bed.

Regardless of whoever has won and lost, and whoever you support, spare a thought for these real winners and losers, sleeping soundly in the knowledge that their job is finally done.




Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images.



About the author

Robert Bartram was a member of Labour Party staff between 1996-1997; a researcher at the House of Commons for Labour MP Martin Linton, 1997-1999; and Special Adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing St, 1999-2001.

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