The following blog post is a review of my experience as a Labour candidate during the June 2017 General Election. Over those thirty seven days I experienced many different emotions, and it is this aspect that I deal with, rather than policy matters, or the strategy of the campaign.
Those who have been through an election campaign as a candidate may nod at some of the emotions I describe, and I hope that this blog will be a help to those who have yet to take that step. A special thanks to those who encouraged me to write it.
I remember the call to confirm I was the Labour candidate for North East Bedfordshire very well, which took place after a number of days of what can only be described as purgatory waiting for it! I’d actually missed the call as I was on the London Underground, had been unable to hear the voicemail while standing on a noisy platform at Kings Cross station – and then succeeded in deleting it!
I tentatively phoned Labour HQ expecting (or was it hoping?) to get the polite rejection line. It soon became very real with a wide range of emotions as I gazed out of the window of the train on the way home, if I’m honest not all of them unbounded happiness. “You’ve over-reached yourself here…what were you thinking?!….this isn’t a game…..no-one will take you seriously…do I really have to do a hustings?” Many other negative thoughts threatened to overtake me. These thoughts weren’t helped by the previous night reading the lengthy Wikipedia entry of Alistair Burt, the incumbent MP, who I was about to run against. The extensive list of ministerial appointments only heightened my feelings of inadequacy.
As I told the audience at the first hustings of the campaign, since I was about 18 I’d secretly always wanted to be an M.P. I’d been brought up in the North East of England and had seen the closure of the steelworks in Consett and the huge job losses in the NE, but it was the Miners’ strike of 84/5 that first politicised me. I have always had a strong commitment to social justice and fairness and it was these values, along with my determination and competitive nature that won through the doubts.
I’ve always had these conflicting thoughts. On one hand starting with the default position that everyone is better than me in whatever situation arises, contrasted with an absolute self confidence and sheer bloody-mindedness in getting done whatever job needs doing.
Due to the compressed time frame caused by the snap election, the selection of our candidate was taken out of the local Labour Party’s hands. However, during informal discussions about potential candidates came an example of how the direction of your life can hang on as little as one sentence.
“I’m thinking of putting myself forward as a candidate…”
I wasn’t even sure if I was going to say it and, like the doubts stated above, when I did I half expected those present to politely stifle laughter and move on. Thankfully, they didn’t and one of those present later became my agent. Letting my wife know was another step and although she has always been incredibly supportive in what I have done I expected a similar response. Thankfully she was also positive, if a little surprised.
I should at this point describe the effect on a family of an election campaign. For six weeks Mrs Vaughan effectively took over every household task and looked after all aspects of looking after our 11-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, when not out leafleting or at campaign meetings I was usually in our summer house researching, or with my head buried in the laptop. When I was free, my wife could tell I wasn’t really switched on to family issues and my mind was elsewhere. I wouldn’t be giving an honest account if I didn’t say this caused some ‘domestic discussions’ and me being glued to my phone was a particular irritation – it still is! I also had concerns about how the election may affect my daughter, although I’m happy to say these were unfounded. She was very happy to tell me that I’d been mentioned at school as a local candidate – and that Labour had won the school’s ‘General Election’.
Candidates’ home addresses are published as part of the General Election process (although there is an option to withhold your address) and at times I was conscious that it does leave your family somewhat vulnerable. However, I believe that you should be as open as possible and withholding your address looks to me like you’re hiding something. As it turned out the only abuse was, apart from the occasional negative comments whilst out campaigning, limited to unrepeatable messages left on my voicemail. My agent had wisely advised me to obtain a campaign phone to screen these calls. I also had to get used to reading comments from people, who have never met you, discussing you on social media. I enjoyed stepping into the conversation to say hello and put my view across and never allowed myself to take offence. Just posting and replying to social media could in itself be a full time job.
As well as time taken up by social media, it seems like your email address gets sent out to every pressure group and organisation in the UK and you are inundated with requests for your opinion, or pledges of support. Some of these emails could be answered very quickly, some of them would require an amount of research. I answered most of them although I have to admit that the nearer to election day the less time I had. I apologise to all dentists; I didn’t have time to read your association’s manifesto and likewise dog owners; I didn’t have time to read your club’s manifesto either. For future reference I’m a big fan of both dogs and dentists! I always attempted to answer personal emails even if I may not have had the time to answer as fully as I would have liked.
I would describe the election process, particularly in a snap election, as a constant set of exams and deadlines on permanent repeat. At the start of the campaign I felt the pressure on myself not to let myself down, but as the campaign progressed this changed to not letting down my brilliant team and all the supporters and volunteers.
Hustings (like Question Time on the BBC without the TV cameras) are probably one of the most challenging aspects of an election campaign, taking up considerable time in researching likely topics and where you really are on a tightrope and things can go badly wrong very quickly.
Our constituency held two hustings, some don’t hold any at all, which is a shame as it is a great opportunity to not only put your views across, but to have those views challenged. On the other hand there is absolutely no hiding place so there is a distinct element of fear, mixed with excitement. As an ASLEF Union Rep I’ve spoken at many branch meetings, and train drivers can be a tough crowd. This experience was a great help, although I was fully aware that any disaster at a Hustings would be of a far greater magnitude than a branch meeting. During the election there was a steady trickle of stories from Hustings which had gone very badly wrong for one of the candidates.
The first Hustings had a mixture of prepared questions, known to the panel in advance and questions from the audience which we had no preparation for. I prepped as best I could for the set questions and what I thought would come up from the audience. I had a long drive to the venue giving me the chance to think about how it was going to pan out, and of course imagined some disastrous scenarios which could befall me. The shot of adrenalin as I walked on the stage with the other candidates was very strong and I reminded myself to breathe deeply and slowly. No candidate however experienced is immune to nerves and I think we all suffered a little and the prepared questions, although safer in terms of being less likely to catch you out, led to a rather stilted first half. The second half was opened up to the audience and I felt far more relaxed and enjoyed it to a certain extent. Although by no means a left leaning audience there was some positive feedback afterwards and my agent seemed happy, although it didn’t stop me noting things I could have done much better.
The second hustings was four days before the election, was attended by many more people (around 100) and was being recorded. The hustings was in doubt for a while as the London Bridge terror attack happened the night before and I spoke to Alistair Burt in the morning to check all were OK to go ahead – we all were. Prior to the hustings we were ‘mic’d up’ and I inwardly laughed to myself thinking, “if you stuff it up here it’s all on tape!” I was far more nervous prior to this event than the first, I think this was partly due to a number of people who had worked so hard for us during the campaign being present in the audience and I was desperate not to let them down. My wife and daughter were also in the audience, also a tough crowd!
Again I needed to remember my breathing to calm myself down and remind myself to listen to the questions and listen to the answers of the other candidates. It can be very easy to just concentrate on the question and your answer and I tried to avoid that as it can be very obvious when you’re not actively listening to the other candidates. We had no advance warning of the questions and I was hoping that my research would cover all possible questions – it didn’t.
My worst nightmare was happening, the panel was asked a question about modern slavery which I had done no research for and knew nothing about. “Don’t ask me first!” I was silently imploring – that didn’t work either, First up! Two choices, try and blag it or own up. In reality it was an easy choice and I’d decided already what I would do in this situation, which was to put my hand up and admit I didn’t have an answer. My heart did sink and I was annoyed with myself, but the situation doesn’t allow for any time to dwell on it as the hustings was only half way through and I managed to forget about it pretty quickly. Thankfully the rest of the event went okay and I enjoyed the exchanges between Alistair and myself, but you can listen to the recording below and make your own mind up:
Although we needed to overturn a 25,000 majority I’d always approached the election with the mindset that we could win and I would graciously ignore anyone who thought I was slightly mad – and there were a few! Apart from being very competitive I’m very determined but I believe the winning mindset is vital to any campaign. How can you expect volunteers to give up their time for you if you’ve given up already? I truly believe anything is possible if you work together and work hard. Of course a dash of naivety can be helpful as sometimes the scale of a task can become overwhelming if seen in full.
It was only in the last couple of days that I allowed myself some negative thoughts and acceptance that I may not actually win. I was struck by how this affected me as I was confident by this time that I could operate at this level and would be a capable MP but would be unlikely to achieve it.
The night of the count was another new experience for me and it is rather odd, though not unpleasant to look at ballot papers with a cross by your name. The Bedford count was taking place alongside ours and it was brilliant to witness Mohammad Yasin narrowly gain the constituency from the Conservatives. The count seemed to last forever, although adrenalin keeps you going, and I spent time chatting to all the other candidates as well as my brilliant team. For those who aren’t aware, when the candidates line up for the returning officer to declare the result, the candidates have already been told. 18,277 votes – almost double our 2015 result and a reduction of almost 5,000 in the Conservative majority.
I got home about 06.00 in the morning and lay on the sofa downstairs and took it all in while watching BBC News. I was touched by the messages of congratulations from so many people. After such an intense period it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a reaction and I’ll freely admit I felt a little low for a time with a mixture of fatigue and a come down from the adrenalin rush of the campaign.
Life has been even busier since the election and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet so many people dedicated to fairness and equality, the same values that I strongly believe in.
Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt. Will I get the chance to? I hope so.