My black suit was clean and pressed. My white shirt with a herringbone pattern embedded into its weave had been ironed. A silk maroon tie was neatly tucked underneath my stiff collar, tied into a Windsor knot. The head of fresh red rose was pinned to my lapel. I had shaved around my beard that morning and I still felt the slight sting of the lotion I applied afterward. I was nervous, I was hopeful: it was a sunny, warm August morning and I was about to go into the offices of Unite the Union to be interviewed to be a potential Labour candidate for next year’s local election.
Becoming a candidate isn’t merely a matter of putting in an application and hoping for the best. This is just as it should be: before the party is going to expend money, time and commitment on someone, it needs to gauge the potential candidate’s willingness and ability to reciprocate the party’s efforts. In my black leather valise, I carried with me a printed copy of my CV, my application form, the novel I’ve written and the academic textbook to which I had contributed a chapter. My British passport was carefully tucked into a plastic pocket. I was fully prepared to be questioned deeply, to have my credentials checked and to be scrutinised to the core.
Every potential candidate is vetted by a panel from outside the constituency. In my case, I was questioned by three people from constituencies directly adjacent to my own. The room was dark pink in colour, the blinds had been drawn to keep out the heat, and the golden light of the day poked through via slender gaps. The relatively dim light gave the room a somewhat subdued air, which lent itself well to the seriousness of its purpose. The panel introduced themselves, hands were shaken and we began.
I was asked the basics about who I am and why I wanted to be a candidate. I spoke about the work I had done with the UCU union and my commitment to working in the community. In particular, I have served as a school governor for the past several years: my hope was and remains that I can use my knowledge, experience and skills to the benefit of the area which I’ve made my home.
Notes were taken, the panelists nodded, a few smiles appeared. We talked in detail about some of the problems of the area: parts of it, it was said, have unemployment in excess of 20 percent, and many of those who are out of work lack fundamental qualifications. How would I try to address this?
Although technically my council (Peterborough) falls into the “No Overall Control” category, it is run by the Conservatives. I said if I was elected that my first priority would be to ask the council what on earth they were doing to address these problems. Were they providing retraining schemes? While council budgets are being cut, there is a level of discretion that could be applied, furthermore, it wouldn’t be in the Conservative Party’s interests to cut off their colleagues’ prospects of regaining an overall majority. This would entail a less sharp edge to the cuts that Peterborough would likely face, in which case, how is this advantage being used to the benefit of people in the city?
Second, I would ask what was being done to partner with local businesses and third sector organisations to help these people get back into employment? The Tory propensity is for dull, unimaginative government that seems to have one policy, namely, trusting the free market and doing little else: I assume that what they are doing is quite limited.
We moved on to other topics: did I understand what the Group Whip did? Yes, I had two tools as a councillor, a voice and a vote. The voice was for my constituents, the vote was to help the party to help my constituents. I was asked what I would do if policy didn’t match with local priorities: I talked about my experience in forging agreements between groups with differing interests and the art of compromise.
The interview became fun: smiles became more prevalent, we talked about the weaknesses in the Northern Powerhouse programme and how it was actually intended to absolve central government from its responsibilities. One thought occurred to me which I then expressed: it’s time that Labour became the party of the digital economy.
The Tories have cast their lot with the financial industry: witness the hedge funds which donated to their recent campaign. They believe only in intervention when it shores up banks. Meanwhile there are many digital entrepreneurs, small businesses which pay their full share of taxes who cannot get access to capital to expand their companies; this capital is often sucked down the plughole of speculation about esoteric matters such as the weather in Iowa. I know of an inventor who needed substantial capital to be able to manufacture his advanced product in Britain: he was on the international news, his invention was hailed as a step forward. However, he simply couldn’t get the capital to build his facility in England. As a result, he was forced to turn to Chinese factories. Had he been able to do so here, no doubt there would have been highly skilled, well paid jobs that would have arisen as a result. The Tories would shrug and say that it’s just the free market at work; Labour can come up with a better, more active response.
It’s not as if Labour and the left doesn’t have a history of supporting innovation: Harold Wilson spoke of the “white heat” of the technological revolution. Tony Benn created International Computers Limited and supported the development of the Concorde. In America, Obama has shown there’s a great deal of mileage to be the candidate of technology: among the major donors to his campaign in 2012 were Microsoft and Google. This contrasted positively to Mitt Romney’s contributions from Goldman Sachs (it must be said that Goldman Sachs hedged their bets, however). In Australia, the last Labor victory was achieved in part to its support of a programme for a National Broadband Network: the government was later felled by infighting. Labour in the UK needs learn from the examples of others, reclaim its heritage, and become the party of the technological progress again.
After I finished speaking, I feared that I might have said too much: after all, the role I was putting myself forward for was to serve the community at the ground level. If I am successful, my priority will be to get school roofs fixed and streetlamps mended, to help local businesses get on their feet and people back to work, to stand up for those left vulnerable by cuts and victimised by the vicious policies coming down from central government. I was asked to leave the room while the panel discussed my interview. For those few tense minutes, nerves took hold again: after all, politics isn’t just about presenting a clear argument or having facts at your command, rather, it’s also entails ensuring that these land in a way that is interesting and compelling.
The door opened. The panel quickly put me out of my misery and told me that I had been accepted; they were kind enough to add that they thought I was “engaging” and would make a “wonderful candidate”. I thanked them profusely, told them I looked forward to the campaign, shook hands again, and then stepped back out into the bright August sunshine.
The next stage will involve being adopted by a particular ward. But that won’t come until September: by then, the bright sunshine will start to fade into memory, the trees will begin to turn colour, and there will be many weekends spent walking up and down the sidewalks, wearing out shoe leather, speaking to voters and handing out leaflets. I hope to be the very model of a modern Labour candidate: while part of me will enjoy the languid days of August, the most exciting times are yet to come.