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.