If you have ever attended a Carol Service featuring young children, whether in your own formative years or as a proud parent, it is highly likely you have heard the carol ‘Away in a Manger.’ A melody well suited to growing and uncertain young vocal chords, it is a popular choice for children’s choirs and usually ends up sounding as sweet and innocent as the baby they are singing of.
If you live in an area where elections are happening this year, someone you know will probably complain: “I had a politician knocking on my door the other day. It’s typical – they only ever show up when they want your vote!” Indeed, you may not only agree with the sentiment, but have expressed it yourself!
I’m returning to political blogging with a series of short blogs on my experience of standing for election as a new parent. I am persuaded that politics does not need to be as confusing and mysterious as it seems to most people – and I hope sharing my experience this year will de-mystify what it looks like to stand for elected office, and help make politics more accessible. I’ll also be candidly addressing what it is like to campaign as the parent to a young child – a whole new challenge for me!
If the result of a hung parliament has come as a surprise to everybody apart from YouGov, the biggest surprise is the sudden media focus on Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP. I know a number of people will be disquieted at the presence of the DUP as a potential party of government – so I wanted to use a quick bit of political science to show how the DUP are in the position that they have an effective veto on House of Commons business.
In part two of my special blogs for the 2017 General Election (read part one here) I’m going to address the question of why I am supporting the Conservatives. This will partly be a positive exhortation that there are good reasons to support the Conservatives, but also to address criticism levied at the government. In my earlier blog I asserted that government has a positive role to play for our good, and that as active participants in a democracy we should seek the election of people who will govern us well and wisely. Nobody disagrees in this objective, but instead disagrees on what good government looks like in practice! (This is also the root of many a frustrated political argument between friends)
If you are of my generation (ie. born somewhere in the 1980s) and were at all involved in church life between 1995 and 2005 you will have almost certainly come across the W.W.J.D. bracelet fad beloved by young Christians of that time. The bracelet was meant to prompt the wearer to ask, in any given situation “What Would Jesus Do?” On the whole, I think aspiring to act like a man who urged his followers to love their enemies and to treat others as we would treat ourselves, is rather good advice. The trouble is that we are rather good at applying it to some obvious scenarios (not gossiping about the questionable office colleague; being patient with your annoying family member) and find it trickier when it comes to questions like “How would Jesus vote?”
Britain wakes up in shock, and thanks to social media it does not take very long for that shock, dismay and disbelief to appear on our timelines. While the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is shocking in itself, the shock is intensified because none of the opinion polls or commentators predicted it would happen. Some of us worried that a Trump win was possible, but few worried that it was likely.
This is probably the fifth big political shock in the last two years – following the surprisingly close Scottish referendum, the unexpected Conservative majority in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, and the vote for Brexit in June this year. In such a time of shocks, convulsions and change, people are understandably nervous and unsettled – especially when you consider the personal character of individuals like Mr Trump. It will take time to process the sea change that lies ahead of us, but in an increasingly divided world, I wanted to venture a few ways we can react positively today:
1. Be generous in appreciating women today
The first point really shouldn’t need to be a point – but sadly it is not the given that it ought to be. While I don’t think Trump’s victory was mainly due to misogyny (though it definitely is a factor), it is hard to ignore the fact that he has an unacceptable and disrespectful attitude towards women, even before considering certain of the allegations that have been made against him. For Trump to defeat Clinton, who for all her flaws is an articulate, hardworking and intelligent woman, is not a reassuring message to women that they enjoy equal esteem with men. We cannot do much about the heart attitudes of others, but we can make a small difference today by going the extra mile to make the women we know feel valued and appreciated, and ensuring we make a lifetime habit of that appreciation.
2. Take the time to grieve
Yougov released some fascinating polling regarding Brexit this week, comparing the reaction of Remain voters to the five stages of grieving. I think it helpfully shows that an unexpected political result, while obviously not comparable to the loss of a loved one, is nevertheless a severe shock to the system. Recognising the shock (or indeed the hurt) is the first step to giving yourself the space to recover from that shock.
3. Do not be anxious
One of the biggest comforts but also biggest challenges of my Christian faith is the exhortation: “Do not worry.” Even though we can see the wisdom in the saying ‘Who of you, by worrying, can add a day to their life?’ we still find reasons to be anxious! Whatever challenges lie ahead (and I have no doubts under President Trump we will face many challenges) we gain nothing but ill health by worrying about it. Yes, we might have to deal with some bad things, but a more positive response is to take comfort in our incredible capacity to rise to meet adversity.
4. In time, ask what you can do for your country
Finally, we each need to ask what role we have to play. Across the whole of the world there is a growing disconnect between communities and individuals; a dissociation from one another that is bigger than this blog has space for. The one thing Trump’s victory has shown us, is that complaining about the problem, or shouting at the problem, is not going to make it go away. Many people voted for Trump for bad reasons, but many also voted because they are crying out for someone to hear them. If we are to belong to one another again, we need to learn to listen to one another again, to bear with our differences, and to ask what we can do for our communities. Only by modelling something better, can we deliver something better.
Over the last couple of years Biteback publishing have been progressively releasing a series of political ‘How to …’ books, beginning with a new edition of Newport East MP Paul Flynn’s ‘How to be an MP.’ Titles in the range so far include:
- How to be a Minister
- How to be a Government Whip
- How to be a Spin Doctor
- How to be a Parliamentary Researcher
My eye was caught however by a new volume: How to win a marginal seat, written by the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell. For those wondering what makes a seat ‘marginal’ let me give the example that Gavin won his seat in 2015 by 165 votes – or to put it another way, if just 83 people had voted for his nearest challenger rather than him, he would have lost. A marginal seat is therefore a seat where the incumbent has such a small lead that there is a good chance that their opponent might defeat them – in contrast to a ‘safe’ seat, where a cardboard box wearing the correctly coloured rosette would win the election every time.
[As an aside, whether a seat is safe or marginal can change very dramatically. Oxford East MP Andrew Smith had a comfortable majority of 10,344 votes in 2001 which collapsed to 963 in 2005. His current majority is 15,280.]
Gavin’s book serves both as a fascinating historical record of the 2015 General Election campaign, but also in my view as the definitive handbook for how to fight a close political election. Having downloaded the sample to my Kindle, I was so impressed by Gavin’s honesty, transparency, and capacity to tell a compelling story, that I had no reservations in stumping up the £6.47 to buy the Kindle version in full, and it is well worth the investment of time and money.
Credit is due that at no point do you feel that Gavin has drowned you in excessive contextual detail, nor left any part of the story bereft of the background you need to understand his story. We pick up his story at the point at which he released he was (as the book’s subtitle puts it) ‘fighting for my political life’ – when Croydon Labour flattened the Conservatives in the 2014 local elections. Realising (as he politely puts it) he was ‘up a well known creek’ we get a fascinating insight into the strategy Gavin’s team developed to identify and motivate those Croydon residents most likely to re-elect him.
While subsequent chapters show how the strategy was rolled out on the ground, it is perhaps Chapter 3 “Designing a Paddle” that is the most helpful to readers, and especially those who exist outside of the political bubble. This paragraph in particular deserves all the airtime it can get:
Some people would vote Conservative even if we never knocked on their door or delivered leaflets to them. Some would vote Labour, UKIP, Liberal Democrat or Green no matter how hard we tried to persuade them otherwise. Some wouldn’t vote at all. We needed to concentrate our efforts on the people who were likely to vote, had yet to make up their minds how they were going to do so and might be persuaded to vote for me. They were the people who would determine whether I won or lost.
This is where Gavin’s warts and all revelation of his political campaign comes into its own. From conversations with friends who are interested in politics at the level of being good citizens, but rather sensibly have stayed away from the stress of actually being in politics, a common observation is that they never hear from politicians, except during elections. Gavin’s book goes some considerable way towards showing just how costly it is in time, effort, manpower and money to reach even a small section of the electorate, after which a significant percentage are still never going to change their mind about you.
A pertinent example is spelled out in Chapter 22, which focuses on their polling day operations. Labour put out 500 activists in Croydon Central on polling day, 200 more than Gavin Barwell’s campaign team. There is a distinct element of Michael Lewis’s baseball focused book Moneyball in the decision by Gavin and his team to focus their efforts where it would make the greatest difference. Where you have fewer resources, you have to invest them more intelligently if you hope to win. My own hope is that this frank revelation of campaigning realities might lead to more people helping out campaign teams, and also a greater sympathy for political candidates – Gavin was gracious enough to recognise that his Labour opponent Sarah Jones had the not inconsiderable obstacle of trying to defeat him while still holding down a full time job.
The book therefore is of great use to two very different readerships. The first is to the wider readership who normally consume politics via the ‘air war’ of media exchanges, whether printed, television, or online. How to win a marginal seat will give you the feel and smell of a tough political fight, and give you a much better understanding of why campaign decisions take the decisions that they do. You will not necessarily agree with everything that is said – but even if that is the case, I hope that the book would serve as an impetus for you to get involved yourself and to begin bringing the change you desire into our way of doing politics.
Secondly, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that this book is now required reading for any person desiring to run for elected office, or to run a successful politician campaign. How to win a marginal seat is a play-by-play guide to winning a tough fight against the odds, and to maximise the resources at your hands.The lessons that you can draw from the narrative go beyond just one read, and include both immediate easy wins that can be implemented immediately, and longer cultural changes that will take longer to see the benefit of, but will repay a handsome dividend for your efforts.
The book lacks only in one regard, which is no fault of the author’s. Throughout the book Gavin Barwell acknowledges several of the advantages set before him: his incumbency advantage (especially in terms of issue familiarity); a strong team of local councillors; a strong Conservative association; and the fact that as the sitting MP residents both knew who he was, and also would be more likely to listen to him. There remains a gap in the market for people like myself, who need to come from behind to unseat an entrenched local candidate (for those wondering, I’d need a 20% swing to win Littlemore in the 2018 City Council elections!). It will be interesting to see if Biteback have plans for such a book, perhaps based on MPs such as Marcus Fysh in Yeovil who managed to take a long-held Liberal Democrat seat with a 16% swing; or Tania Mathias who unseated Vince Cable in Twickenham with a 11.8% swing; or indeed Byron Davies, who took a seat in Wales that had been held by Labour for 105 years! If they are anywhere near the outstanding quality of How to win a marginal seat, they will very quickly also become required reading for those in politics.
How to win a Marginal Seat was released in March 2016. You can buy it on Amazon for £12.99 in print, or £6.47 on Kindle:
Let me start with a question: should it matter if a group of people decide two different things? I’m perfectly serious – if you’re heading for a night out with your friends, then half of you want to go bowling and other half want to go to the cinema, what is forcing you to do the same thing?
In just one scenario we capture the essence of social choice theory. Social choice is the antithesis of the free market – in the free market you make your own choice and carry the benefits and costs of that choice. Social choice means you express a preference, that preference informs the decision of a group, and the group fall in behind the final decision, even if that decision is at variance with your own preference. On paper, social choice seems madness – what possible merit is there in forcing a person to embrace a choice at variance with their preference?
Of course, social choice is no new madness, and we can account for several instances in which collective choice is either the only way to decide, or the best way to decide. If a town decides to build a bridge across the river running through the town, it would be insanity to build a bridge everywhere the residents wished one built – so of necessity a choice mechanism is used to determine the one place the bridge is built. Thinking back to our social outing, while it is of course true that your group of friends could go off and do two separate things, it is more likely that you will want to do one thing together, as the whole point of the evening was to do something together.
Social choice, which underpins all our modern understanding of democracy, can be summarised thus: that a group of individuals sacrifice their individual autonomy, recognising that a single response reflecting the aggregated will of that group is preferable to the alternative of separate decisions. To give a slightly flippant example – I may prefer going to Germany to watch the Grand Prix more than the holiday destination my wife and I have chosen together – but I quite cheerfully sacrifice that preference because I consider it much more important that my wife and I reach a decision together that works for both of us!
This is why the #NotInMyName hashtag is so fundamentally dangerous. It’s entirely understandable that those who voted Remain feel a sense of shock and grief. Elections are a recognition of division and sincerely held differences, and defeat is a painful pill to swallow. The contestation however that “I did not vote for this; therefore, the result is not legitimate” is a fundamental rejection of social choice theory. It should perhaps come as no shock to us; the trajectory of modern thought has been the elevation of the individual above all else, whether in morality or in economics. While some reforms have undoubtedly been for the good in freeing individuals from tyranny, the response of the young generation has two implications, neither of them good for our nation.
The first implication runs as follows: if you do not agree with me, you do not belong to me. There is a bitter irony that a campaign whose slogan was ‘Stronger Together’ now sees its acolytes pleading that they would rather be separate from those who disagree with them. Social choice means that you accept that your preference may not always win, but that forsaking a degree of autonomy is preferable for the sake of the good outcomes that come when you work together. The alternative to accepting this, as we are sadly seeing in Scotland, is to conclude that you’re going to take your decisions elsewhere. Anyone who has spent five minutes in political circles knows that such a mindset of ideological purity leads to individuals bitterly wondering why the world cannot see why their views are clearly the right ones.
The second implication is this: if you do not agree with me, then your opinion is worth less than my opinion. Social Choice is a force for good, in that it enshrines a principle that everyone’s preference should be equally weighted in the decision that is reached. To decide a decision does not represent you when it goes against your own preference, is to say that the losing side is worth more than the winning side. It rejects one-person, one-vote – it could indeed be put in the Orwellian phraseology that ‘some animals are more equal than others.’ Down that path lies neither the individual autonomy of the free market, nor the collective decision reaching of social choice. Instead lies the horrifying edifice of totalitarianism: choices made for the common good, for your own good, because the wise ones know best. We Conservatives know full well that such wisdom is folly, for it has no answer for when the wise ones are wrong or corrupt.
There are many issues to be worked through in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU. Fundamental to the health of our nation’s governance, and I would even venture the health of our communities, is that we reject this dangerous notion that a decision reached in contrast to our preferences is ‘not in our name.’ We belong to each other, we are far better when we work together than when we flee from each other, and we all deserve to be respected as possessing equal worth. #NotInMyName stands in opposition to all of those principles – and it is entirely right that we should point that out.