Mike Parker reflects on his experiences as a political candidate and the lessons he was forced to learn.
The celebrated Elvis rock on the A44 into Aberystwyth is one of the better examples of the fusion between writers and politics. During the 1962 Montgomeryshire by-election campaign, two young rascals from the college by the sea (David Meredith and the late John Hefin) borrowed a car and drove up to the county border beneath Pumlumon. There, they decided to do something big to boost the profile of Plaid Cymru candidate, author Islwyn Ffowc Elis. On a rock by the road, they daubed his name large in white paint, though mistakenly added an extra ‘L’ (ELLIS). It wasn’t much help: he came last in the by-election with six per cent of the vote, but a mystery hand soon changed their graffito to ELVIS, and a legend was born.
In more recent times, writers attempting to cross the Styx into the Hades of politics have not had it quite so gentle. When in early 2013 I was contemplating becoming a Plaid Cymru candidate, there was another by-election, this time in the Hampshire seat of Eastleigh. It was a brutal scrap between the incumbent Liberal Democrats (the by-election had been caused by the Shakespearian downfall of Chris Huhne), the Conservatives and UKIP, but my attention was taken by the Labour candidate, writer and broadcaster John O’Farrell. For those of us of a certain age and political mien, his Things Can Only Get Better was the definitive comic memoir of being young, left and furious in the dark days of Thatcherism.
At first, almost everyone welcomed this apparently new-fangled way of doing politics, and some commentators even foresaw a surprise Labour win. The papers, of course, had something to say about that. They trawled O’Farrell’s various memoirs for passages to inflame their apoplectic readership. One described his youthful ambivalence about the 1984 Brighton bomb; the other his similarly off-message views of the Falklands conflict two years earlier.
O’Farrell’s ancient comments were ritually disemboweled of context, magnified and shrieked over. “Is Ed’s pal the sickest man in politics?” howled a headline in the Mail on Sunday, the weekend before polling. With a day to go, an acquiescent Tory MP handed David Cameron the chance to rail against O’Farrell at PMQs, an opportunity that he seized at his cocky Flashman best. Labour came a distant fourth, and in interviews after the result, O’Farrell looked exhausted, haunted even, and a whole ten years older than he had little more than a fortnight before, when he was selected.
Although perhaps it should have done, it didn’t put me off. Despite a similar background in both writing and comedy, John O’Farrell is a far bigger name than me, and the searchlight scrutiny of a knife-edge by-election a different game entirely to a nationwide poll. His sorry saga could not repeat itself in Ceredigion, I felt sure.
I was wrong, of course. In what was widely seen as the muckiest incident of any in Wales during last year’s general election campaign, the local paper gunned me down with sensationalist headlines that proved the immutability of Godwin’s Law. There was a huge reaction, and one theme repeatedly came up amongst the comments: can a writer, or indeed anyone with a significant back catalogue outside of politics, stand for election? Or was it almost guaranteed that their opponents, especially in the heat of battle as polling day looms, would use any old dirt, or anything that could be twisted to look like old dirt, in order to attack?
Writing about ‘Nazigate’, as it inevitably became known, BBC Political Editor Vaughan Roderick observed that the calls of every party to bring in politicians from outside the bubble are all well and good, but that “people like that haven’t been watching every word, while keeping an eye on the green benches, so that digging around is likely to produce a story that can be used against them” [my translation].
As things stand, this is only likely to get worse. I’m nearly fifty, so thankfully my youthful indiscretions and hot-headed teenage observations are not archived online for evermore. Trawling through potential politicians’ Facebook and Twitter feeds has become just the starting point for their opponents. Careers are being destroyed before they have even begun, especially amongst the younger, digital-native population.
The solution lies in the hands of political parties themselves, if they can only resist their five minutes of fun when a new victim is served up for today’s Twitterstorm. It’s a very big ‘if’, for I see no movement in that direction by any of them. The vicious tribalism of party politics, together with an addiction to the instant hit of an increasingly frenetic (and social media obsessed) news cycle, wins out every time.
If the parties and their activists continue this addiction, the outlook is bleak. It will make politics increasingly open only to bullies, braggarts and the kind of obsessive oddballs who decided at the age of fourteen that they were destined to be Prime Minister. For anyone with a hinterland, or who has been round the block a few times, there seems to be just one likely outcome: things can only get bitter.
9 thoughts on “A rock and a hard place”
I sympathise with Mr.Parker and it’s a real pity that a good intelligent writer failed in an election bid in Ceredigion, although it was a rather predictable outcome. Is, however, his contention that ‘good’ people with a ‘back story’ (like his?) will inevitably fail at politics because of vicious media attack really true? Even in this past election people with a ‘back story’ much more contentious than Mr.Parker’s have been elected to office.
Quite a few writers (and journalists) have been, are and continue to be elected to high (and low) political office and probably because of and not in spite of their ‘back story’ or past writing. Conversely, some brilliant writers have failed dismally. Perhaps these failures are due to a combination of the candidate’s own publicly perceived personality and specific local conditions.
If Mr.Parker really wants to go into politics he should keep standing but maybe in a different constituency. After all, Ceredigion is probably one of the hardest political nuts to crack in the whole of Wales. Words like head and brick wall spring to mind. Also a re-reading of the works of Robert Caro (on political power) would be of benefit.
More evidence of the disadvantages of a so called ‘free press’! Hardly free when the main publishers are multi millionaires with a single agenda?
Where would democracy in Wales be without that hands on bastion of journalistic freedom Sir Ray Tindle of Surrey and his extensive collection of newspapers. Ultra-local journalism for so many of our towns with a political steer to all titles direct from the Home counties. We surely are not worthy.
Listen IWA, you have to make up your mind about yourselves…are you going to publish comments that you disagree with or that challenge the authors of discussion pieces or are you going to exercise censorship beyond your “house rules”? My comment was written at 09.11 AM yesterday. Richard Jenkins’ was written at 13:43. Both say something similar; my comment isn’t published.
Mike Parker is a politician and author advertising his new book with the help of the IWA. He’s a big boy who is looking to self publicise and increase his earnings from what you, IWA, publish. Let him take the rough with the smooth.
And how many years in the wilderness did the unfortunate Hamilton’s endure just for being misquoted and misunderstood………I’ll just get my coat.
Hi J. Jones,
I have emailed you regarding the comments you mention here.
Here is my post without the offending link to “Literature Wales”.
Oh Goody…another book by a failed Plaid Cymru politician published by Y Lolfa, that well known organ for the redistribution of Welsh Government money to Nationalists that we never knew we were supporting. Maybe he will win a prestigious Welsh award like this:-
Looks like The Greasy Poll was more like a greasy pole and you fell off it! Like falling off your bike – maybe should climb back on it? That’s not quite the same as saying on yer bike but I’m almost bound to be misquoted!
Let’s face it, politics is full of people pretending to be something they’re not, and it goes right to the top of most of the parties on a global scale, so it’s only fair that people entering politics should be exposed, warts and all, so voters can make their own minds up whether they really want to vote for them or not…
@J.Jones Your comment about Welsh publishers has some resonance for me. As an independent Welsh book publisher of several years and many publications who has never applied for, sought or received Lit Wales, Welsh Books Council, Welsh Government financial or other support, we have several concerns beyond the political.
Many Welsh publishers (not us) are so dependent on ‘grant’ funding that they cannot or do not publish anything unless it fits into fairly rigid criteria of ‘Welsh Interest’ or literary merit. Also the funding cycle for support is so slow and convoluted that it can be years before anything gets approved and actually published. Mr.Parker’s book has managed to be published remarkably quickly so it would be interesting to know how this was ‘fast tracked’.
This basically means that good writing by other Welsh writers for an international audience can be lost unless picked up by us or UK mainstream publishers. In addition, the publishing world has changed beyond recognition in the last few years because of the Internet and the Welsh Books Council and other similar entities have not adapted sufficiently.
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