How one election leaflet, a diary mess-up and a tweet led to my local Tory and Labour candidates jostling for the chance to pop over to my place for a chat.
— Cool Ed Miliband (@cooledmiliband) April 19, 2015
IS THAT A SIZEABLE MAJORITY IN YOUR TRUNKS, MR BOND?
The mediocrity of this year’s General Election campaign was brought into sharp focus by #Milifandom (above). The extent of the coverage it received just shows how desperate the media were to inject some excitement and scandal into a thoroughly uninspiring and stage-managed campaign. Maybe it was because of this, and the relentless monotony of commuting to an office job in London, that meant I didn’t quite wake up to the fact we were about to pick the next UK Government until last week! Last Wednesday (29 April), to be precise.
The exact moment was at 7.20am, as I was making my usual fast-paced dash to the station for the morning cattle train to the capital, when an older gent wearing a bright red rosette thrust a Labour leaflet into my hand. If I could go back now I would kiss that party activist on the forehead because that leaflet started a series of events that roused me from my commuter-stupor and awakened my inner politics geek, which I can only presume had been in hibernation since I picked up my BA Politics in 2012.
As I (and my inner politics geek) began to fully wake-up on the train to work, Labour leaflet and obligatory Metro in hand, it dawned on me I had done absolutely no research on the candidates battling to represent me – and the rest of Old Bexley and Sidcup. With the ‘presidential’ national campaign it’s easy to forget that neither Cameron nor Miliband will be on the ballot paper on Thursday, instead we’ll all be voting for our local MP. Overcome by a strange sense of civic duty to research the pack and what they stood for, I attempted to find out if there was a local hustings I could attend. For those who don’t know, Wikipedia defines hustings as:
‘An event during an election campaign where one or more of the candidates are present and debate or give speeches.’
However a quick Google resulted in disastrous news; the hustings had been and gone, taking place a whole two weeks earlier at a church down the road (picture, above). So was that it? Had I missed any opportunity to hear from my local candidates? Sadly, Google had run out of answers; there were no links, no iHustings catch-up service and a quick glance at the candidates’ websites revealed a load of bland, corporate words (likely written by well-meaning press officers at their respective party’s HQs).
So on the walk home that evening, in a last ditch attempt to discover who I should vote for, and in the spirt of what Sky News keep calling the ‘Digital Election’, I whacked out my iPhone and tweeted the three main candidates – James Brokenshire (Con), Ibby Mehmet (Lab) and Jennifer Keen (Lib Dems) – with a simple question…
— Kit Bradshaw (@kitbradshaw) April 29, 2015
At first there was no flurry of notifications, but later that evening, just as I gave up hope of hearing from any of them, I got a direct message from James Brokenshire:
‘Kit, If you can forward your address details I’ll try and pop over. James’
Result! Not just a link to a shoddily filmed video of the hustings but an offer of a personal visit. My inner politics geek was near to explosion (no sexual innuendo intended). I hastily tapped back with my address details and we arranged an evening rendezvous in my front room the very next day.
I hastily did my homework. I already knew he was the incumbent and a current Home Office minister, so I thought of some Paxman-esque questions on police cuts and the introduction of crime commissioners (no need to give him an easy ride, I had home advantage, after all). As a current MP, I could also check his voting record in the Commons. They Work For You is a fantastic way of quickly seeing how any MP voted on any issue. As someone who identifies as LGBT (not all of them but at least one), I was interested in James’ record on Equal Marriage. He passed, voting in favour of the change in 2013.
TEA WITH A TORY
— Kit Bradshaw (@kitbradshaw) April 30, 2015
To the amazement of my mum and sister (yes, I still live at home), who both doubted he would show, James dutifully turned up on my doorstep the next evening. He was smaller than his photo suggested (a phenomenon regular users of online dating apps will relate to) but smartly dressed, as he’d come straight from a local ‘business event’. He was also alone; I had wondered as I sat waiting whether he would bring an activist or two for support!
So we sat on my sofa and chatted freely for almost half an hour on pretty much everything – budget cuts, the deficit, policing, the NHS, the EU, defence, and Scottish independence. I thanked him for his support for Equal Marriage, something he appeared to appreciate as he revealed some of my fellow constituents weren’t as thrilled about that part of his voting record. James seemed surprisingly at ease on my sofa and not phased by my attempt at varied questioning. He was very charming, very polished and very on-message (as you’d expect from a government minister). As it was approaching 10pm, I drew my personal hustings to a close and let him head home.
BATTLE FOR NUMBER 17: LABOUR FIGHT BACK
The pic of James and I looking chummy in my lounge prompted Labour’s Ibby Mehmet to get in touch and request his own cuppa with yours truly! I would have been forgiven for thinking I was somehow the only voter that mattered and it was in fact the battle of for Number 17 (my house) and not Number 10 Downing Street.
— Kit Bradshaw (@kitbradshaw) May 2, 2015
A new day and a new candidate was at my front door (if only online dating was this easy!). Ibby and I sat in my kitchen and spoke at length about whether Ed was the better Miliband, international aid and the military, dealing with government cuts and the uncertainty in Scotland. Ibby was incredibly down to earth and easy to talk to. I wasn’t cheeky enough to ask him his age but I guessed he was closer in age to me than to Mr Brokenshire. Not wanting to keep a busy man too long, I thanked him for his time after almost 30minutes and let him back out onto the campaign trail, after the obligatory picture (above).
WORTH IT OR WORTHLESS?
As someone familiar with Twitter, even I was surprised by just how easy it was for me to get the two front-runners through my front door. It got me access that no phone call or letter to the local constituency offices would have guaranteed (and all in less than 48hrs). All these candidates falling over each other for a piece of me almost convinced me that my vote actually counted. The sad reality is that my vote is actually worth almost nothing. According to the fascinating Voter Power Index, I have the equivalent of 0.046 of a vote as my constituency is ‘Ultra Safe’ Tory, with it almost certain the Conservative candidate will win (congrats to James for Thursday).
Which makes the efforts of James and Ibby to try to win my vote even more admirable. I doubt it’s a sign that James is in fear of his seat, or that Ibby believes he can win. What is more likely is that so many of my generation are apathetic and sceptical of politics that any attempt to engage – especially via social channels – is seized on by candidates desperate to reach out. It is a credit to both men, who thought it was worth half an hour out of their campaign trail to chat to one undecided voter. However, I believe, if we are truly to engage the next generation, we don’t just need good local candidates we need a new, fairer voting system.
With few days left, make sure you read-up on your local candidates and maybe even take the opportunity to arrange your own personal hustings! Did it help me make up my mind? It did. But that will remain, as they say, between me and the ballot box. KB.
At the time of writing, Jennifer Keen from the Lib Dems has yet to reply to my tweet. Maybe she saw in my bio that I used to be a student and thought better of it.
Hilariously, the local UKIP branch seemingly had nothing better to do in the middle of an election campaign than get jealous of my personal schmoozing sessions with James and Ibby. They wanted to know if their invite had got lost in the post (I can only presume they confused my house with a BBC Question Time studio)…