Reality of an Election Campaign

As candidate, agent, Acting Party General Secretary, constituency organiser, general adviser and (most importantly) spouse, I have fulfilled almost every role there is to fill during an election campaign. The public view of it is perhaps rather different from the reality!

My sense is that the public generally view the candidates as full-time and the campaigns as somehow state-funded. Neither is true. Candidates are normal members of the public with work and family commitments just like anyone else; and they and their parties have to raise almost all money involved through their own fundraising. Inevitably, in fact, this gives incumbents and other full-time politicians (say, MLAs running for MP) an advantage, as non-full-time challengers operating entirely voluntarily have to juggle general work commitments with the campaign.

A good campaign will have started well in advance. Months before polling day some kind of communication should already have gone through doors introducing the candidate. A subsequent communication should, ideally, follow demonstrating some of the candidate’s work “on the ground”. Therefore, when the campaign proper starts (officially usually five weeks before polling day), the candidate should already be identifiable to many householders, even if not an incumbent.

The much maligned posters then appear confirming the candidate. In both Irish jurisdictions, it is usual to use face posters placed on public property to achieve this; this is distinct from Great Britain, where usually the name alone, placed alone on private property, suffices. This may be a quirk of the electoral system and electoral tradition, where in Ireland candidates need to be known and personable, whereas in Great Britain there is (or at least was) greater reliance on pure party loyalty. There is, frankly, no need for so many. Main intersections is what you are aiming for, and you want them commonly branded (different posters of the same party or even the same candidate look indecisive, not a popular trait electorally).

Candidates are entitled to one mailing through Royal Mail. Parties do this in many varying ways. Some are happy simply to fire out leaflets in the hope people read them, usually emphasising key points both about the candidate and the party; others like to personalise them, either paying for a mail sort or labelling themselves to try to ensure the addressee takes an interest – labelling is a highly time-intensive activity but can be a good way of involving less mobile campaigners. Some parties, usually the labellers, go for a second leaflet in some locations at their own expense (both in terms of time and money) to re-emphasise an issue, particularly if one has been picked up early in the campaign.

Then, there is canvassing – an art much misunderstood even by canvassers themselves. The purpose of canvassing is, in principle at least, to identify your own voters (often referred to as “definites”) and any waverers (“potentials” or similar). The purpose is not to pick up lots of queries (you should already have done that before the campaign), and it is absolutely not to spend half an hour trying desperately to persuade one person! Outcomes do vary – naturally optimistic canvassers have to be persuaded that “I’ll give it a wee read and see” is not remotely a “definite”; on the other hand, pessimists can sometimes discount potential supporters by ending the interaction as soon as the leaflet has left the hand. The purpose of the canvass leaflet itself is purely to indicate the candidate (or their team) actually called – some make these unnecessarily complicated so that householders who were actually canvassed while out are left with the impression they were not.

As if this were not time consuming enough, candidates also have the media (in all its forms) and “hustings” to contend with. They may be offered TV slots, invaluable for further recognition (people like to vote for candidates they feel they know, and TV seems to count); or radio slots, to put over a particular message. They will also have to contend with huge amounts of email and social media traffic – growing rapidly in the 2010s – trying to appear personable and vaguely normal while avoiding the inevitable trolls who seek to trip candidates up or engage, sadly, in outright bullying. Email queries are often set up by particular campaigns and the same query can be received many times (these used to come on postcards too, but these have now been largely discarded); then there will be genuine emails about a specific topic or range of topics, and unfortunately less that genuine ones from opponents and admirers (for reasons political or otherwise)! Most time-consuming of all, depending on constituency, can be “hustings” hosted by local groups or communities where candidates are invited to appear on a panel – the highlights of these are now often broadcast on social media in one way or another, and the outcome more often than not takes the form of a misplaced remark rather than a brilliant point, as was in evidence in South Down this year.

The final days are the “Get the Vote Out” operation. This is in fact more advanced in Great Britain, where parties even go the extent of placing polling agents to collect voters’ numbers to determine which pledged voters have and have not voted by different times of day. In Northern Ireland, this tradition has not taken root and parties have wildly varying ways of doing it, which may involve further leaflets or letters aimed at nudging “definites” to the polls and/or persuading “potentials” or “undecideds”.

After all that, votes can even be lost at the count. Parties need to be organised with paperwork throughout the campaign, not least to assign counting agents who check the count proceeds correctly (including that votes are in the correct bundle) and that dubious votes are correctly assigned.

It is all a most remarkable, wearying and (in the case of most challengers) voluntary thing. Yet it is democracy in action – and, as we know better than most in this part of the world, it is a lot better than the alternative.

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