Reflections of Election Day

28 Apr

Next week Wales goes to the polls to vote for the make-up of the next Welsh Assembly, and as a by-product its next Welsh Government.  On that day I will be in work as normal.  I will go to the gym as usual before getting in.  I will work until 5pm; drive home; put my kids to bed; walk up the polling station to vote; have some food; watch some TV or read and probably go to bed and to sleep by 10pm.

On Election Day five years ago things were very different.  I had some fantastic results nights during my previous life working and consumed by party politics.  I worked for Plaid Cymru the year they went into government and on a constituency scale having worked for Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Adam Price and Jonathan Edwards I knew only winning.  In the case of RGT, if I recall correctly, we won the highest majority in Wales outside of Dafydd El in 2007.  However, to repeat a sentence already used in this blog post…..five years ago things were very different.

There’s a sense of optimism on any election day.  I think over the course of the campaign there has to be so much positive reinforcement and outward looking promotion that you almost inevitably become a little indoctrinated.  By consistently having to talk up your chances, regardless of the actual state of play, for the sake of the media and your own party campaigners, it is easy to start believing it.  There’s something of a self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome taking place.  Party activities, members, staffers and candidates all brainwashing themselves into thinking that this is their year.  This is their election.

Five years ago I was realistic going into election night.  I don’t think anyone in Plaid Cymru was under any illusions that the election would be anything other than tough.  In fact, it was the commonly held view that there would be a trade-off in electoral success for the positive referendum result.  That was a view accepted before even the One Wales agreement had been signed.  During the campaign I flagged up quite early that I thought Llanelli was in trouble.  That said, you live in hope more than expectation at times.

The saying ignorance is bliss is certainly true on election day and there’s a sense of euphoria in knowing that you’ve always got a chance to win while the polls remain open and, after such an exhausting period of work, whatever happens it is at least coming to an end.  Having spoken to a few people working in different parties during this election it is clear the race to the end is still an existing phenomenon and not confined by political colours.  The pressure and hours that staff, and of course candidates, put in over not just the election period but the months leading up to it shouldn’t be underestimated.  Even ignoring the stupidly long days, the lack of time away from work and the constant over analysing ridiculously minor issues, just think about the toll a month or more of stodgy on the go food has on your mental and physical outlook!

Come 10pm on May 5th 2011 I was exhausted.  As well as the weeks and months of work that had preceded it I’d been up since about 4am delivering ‘Get the Vote Out’ messages.  If I recall I think I slept for about 45 minutes, if that, under a desk at Ty Gwynfor (Plaid HQ) after the polls closed before waking ready for feedback to start coming in from election counts.

History will tell you that it wasn’t a good night for Plaid and no doubt you can imagine the atmosphere.  The only comparison I could make would be the loneliness of the changing room of a losing boxer.  You put so much work and effort in and ultimately there is no consolation for coming second.  There were a few positive rounds.  Seeing the Plaid Cymru Ministers from the One Wales Government returned, quite comfortably, despite strong constituency challenges showed that there was an appreciation of what had been accomplished previously.  From a personal perspective it was also great to see my former boss and friend Rhodri Glyn back.  Still, there was no doubting it was a unanimous points defeat.  The Llanelli result perhaps tipping the analogy over into a late TKO.  That seats like Llanelli and some regional swings came down to such fine margins was a bitter pill to swallow.  A couple of hundred votes spread in different ways and the narrative drastically changes.

I was particularly upset with the Llanelli result as there wasn’t a challenge.  There had been a bundle recount but when there was only 80 votes in there I couldn’t believe no one called for a full recount.  I’m not suggesting the result would be different.  The recount could have returned the exact same result, it could also have returned an even bigger win for Keith Davies.  However, not asking for it just became a little symbol of a defeatist attitude to me over the course of that night.  Then again, sitting in a room in Cardiff it was perhaps easy for me to take a more objective view than those more fuelled by the emotions of the night on a local level.

Politics at its worst is a tribal game.  I speak from the perspective of someone no longer involved, directly at least, with politics in Wales, and certainly not in any party political capacity, but it’s the very reason I decided to want out.  I’ve no doubt my younger self was just as petty and tribal as some of the politics we see today, but I am so glad to be out of that environment and have had the opportunity to work with and challenge politicians from all parties since that election.  Just seeing some of the individual and even official twitter accounts involved in Welsh politics is enough to make me despair.  I really hope that come 10pm on election night we see some grown up interactions.  Remember that someone who has put their life on hold to campaign will be feeling the loss more than anyone.  It is a personal rejection of sorts.  For some it will also mean the end of their livelihoods, perhaps even careers, and that includes support staff.

I doubt very much I would ever be involved in politics in the same way again but if I ever was then I could only hope it was with a view of cross-party working.  That the Assembly has lost in Jocelyn Davies on of its greatest political collaborators, someone so skilled at finding resolutions across the political divide, is a particular sadness for me in looking forward to the 5th Assembly.  The likely make up of the institution post May 5th mean politicians of her caliber and approach are needed more than ever.  They exist in every party and hopefully they set the tone for the next five years.

One of the things I really remember from that night in 2011 was a text from Adrian Masters.  It may have been a throwaway line and I am sure, knowing how nice a person Adrian is and his political fairness, that he would have text around contacts in all the parties.  However his message just simply saying (don’t quote me verbatim but something like) “hope you’re ok” meant a lot at the time and still does. He may not remember it even. I do.

I haven’t gone through the various discussions, fallouts and feelings from that night.  Partly because I’m not sure what good it would do; partly because it may not actually be that interesting and partly because those conversations where not mine alone to disclose.

I’m sure there are many a story from the different political party HQs that both mirror and contrast with my own experience.  Indeed, I have many others of my own that do.  All I will say is that to everyone who is sitting down with such an investment in this election good luck, and don’t forget to take a step back and appreciate the wider landscape when the dust settles.  Life inside the campaign always feels that bit narrower, that bit more pressurised and that bit more immediate than it should.

P.S.

One final piece of advice that has helped me.  Whatever you do, hold on to the friendships and relationships you make in politics, but make sure you have some outside that world to get some real perspective on what is happening around you.  No one else is constantly discussing anywhere near the things you are, and only talking to the same people about the same things will eventually drive you mad.

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