Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Chris Connelley prepares for normal life again after an unsuccessful election campaign.

The Party’s over:  making sense of the day after

HOT writer Chris Connelley stood unsuccessfully for a council seat in last week’s local elections. Here he reflects on the experience.

Standing for councillor is no small commitment.

To a greater or lesser extent, it has preoccupied me for the last eight months, since my party, Labour, chooses candidates for May council elections way back in the autumn.

I’d first thrown my hat into the ring in summer 2013 by declaring my interest in becoming a councillor, and having been cleared as broadly sane, safe and sound by the party’s high command, I took part in a selection day in September, at which wannabe candidates appear before, and appeal to, local party members.

As Hastings is a strong Labour town, most wards now have sitting councillors, most of whom want to continue. There’s also a policy that Labour wards where a male councillor is retiring will run a  ‘woman only’ shortlist, leaving relatively few places up for grabs to a male newcomer like myself.

Maze Hill, where I focused my energies and got selected for, was always a distinctly ‘long shot’ option, never having previously swung Labour’s way, even in the glory days of the mid-to-late 1990s, when huge swathes of middle England genuflected, albeit temporarily, to Tony Blair’s aspirational beat.

It was only in 2012 that my immediate predecessor, multi-talented local boy James Bacon – currently masterminding the impactful Don’t Count Me Out youth vote campaign – had given the Conservatives a serious run for their money, slicing their majority to around 50 in a David and Goliath struggle that almost precipitated a major upset in Maze Hill in what was already a golden year for Labour in Hastings.

This was my prompt to give it a go, hoping that it would take just one more push to topple the established order this time around. From the off, though, as we started systematic door knocking in November, it was clear that this was an optimistic reading. The reception, whilst polite, was pretty frosty towards politicians of all persuasions, the Conservatives attracting opprobrium for being distant and aloof, the Liberal Democrats, if discussed at all, getting excoriated for their ‘about turn’ on student fees, and Labour, whilst securing a broadly positive press at local level, widely damned for choosing the wrong, ‘weird’ brother as its national leader.

The only party to buck this critical trend were Ukip, widely identified without prompting by many residents as their first preference, on the basis of their perceived connectivity with the public on Europe and immigration.

This underwhelmed and disengaged public mood prevailed through the darkening days of autumn, the relentless wind and rains of winter, and the slow awakening of spring, changing seasons that saw pretty consistent responses to our canvassing as we tried to build up our contact numbers. Our promises were holding from last time, but we were not picking up enough of the swing voters required to convert the seat into a win.

As the big day approached, our campaigning regime moved up a gear from one outing a week to twice weekly and then all the way up to nightly canvasses, nudging our pledges slowly upwards, but never really matching those declaring against us. The hope that the campaign might throw up a decisive issue that would put the wind in our sails proved unfounded, whilst the much-anticipated threat to unbroken Conservative hegemony from a Ukip candidate standing and splitting the ‘right wing’ vote did not materialise.

Which is why I entered last Thursday’s count pretty certain I had lost, despite running a highly efficient ‘get out the vote’ exercise on election day, which saw a small increase in Labour’s vote on the 2012 total.  The blunt truth was that whilst we mobilised our vote, so did the Conservatives. What’s more, they almost certainly benefited too from a crossover from the parallel European election, with Ukip Euro voters transferring their way in the absence of a local Ukip candidate.

By 1.30am, it was all over.  The declaration was made, a delighted Rob Lee made his gutsy victory speech and, having watched a few more results come in, I headed off into the night, feeling strangely calm, and even relatively chipper.

Two days on, how do I feel?

If I am honest, still physically tired, after months on the stump; rather missing the discipline of canvassing that so took over my world; sad that my friends and fellow candidates, John Knowles and Graham Crane, also did not quite make it in their notionally more hospitable wards but pleased that I had made a public commitment to my new adopted town by standing for office.

That said, I am not sure that I will do it again, or at least not for a while, and am happy to stand aside after fighting three elections over the last 30 years, with a tally of two wins and one defeat.

Most of all, though, I feel deeply privileged to have met, and talked to, hundreds of residents over the last eight months, sharing ideas and trading stories about making Hastings an even better town for the future. Ideas that usually transcend party affiliation and reinforce the limits of our system’s 19th century tribalism at the same time as high-profiling the power of conversation, consultation and collaboration.

Expect to see more of me scribbling in these pages, sampling the always-enticing smorgasbord of cultural delights in and around the town and just plain chilling.

For now, at least, the Party’s over.


Posted 23:49 Wednesday, May 28, 2014 In: Home Ground

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