Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Elbowed in the head, but still smiling: A loser's tale

Election campaigns are usually fun.  They may be tiring and stressful, but the sense of purpose and camaraderie that develops amongst your team as you pound the streets taking your message to the electorate is an exhilarating and rewarding experience, even if only in retrospect.

Election counts, however, are not fun.  Not in the least. They achieve a curious unity amongst those attending in the fact that no-one really wants to be there a moment longer than necessary: Counting staff, candidates, party supporters - everyone just wants the thing over.  For those who win, even the relief or exaltation they feel at the result struggles to overcome the sheer agony of the hours leading up to the moment.  It is torture; purgatory; an exquisitely cruel and unusual punishment for politicians.

The count for the local elections in Greenwich last month was no exception.  There were small mercies: Unlike the notorious 2010 local and General Election count, we were not stuck overnight in a freezing cold hanger battling hypothermia as well as exhaustion - but the underlying awfulness of the experience was a constant.  Although this time the count began the morning after polling day, the few hours of disturbed sleep it had been possible to grab were no real preparation or comfort.

For a fuller flavour of the experience, I recommend this excellent post by Darryl at the 853 blog.  This at least spares me having to recount (as it were) the whole day myself.  Suffice to say, I lost.  In close-run battles like mine in Eltham North, that blunt fact is not finally known until the moment the Returning Officer gathers candidates and agents in a huddle by her table to give them the numbers before the public announcement.  With shaking hands, I scribbled the numbers down, noting that the first two Labour candidates and my colleague Spencer Drury all polled over 1,900 votes.  Then "Nigel Fletcher...1,823". Not enough.  I was out.  A muted "Yes!" and a palpable jolt of excitement from the Labour supporters reverberated through the scrum, as the rest of the numbers were read, confirming that my colleague Adam Thomas, too, had lost.  As I tried to extricate myself from the chaos, someone moved forward to hug one of the Labour winners - accidentally elbowing me in the head as they did so.

It wasn't exactly a dignified way to lose.  For reasons I've never understood, Greenwich doesn't even invite candidates to line up behind the returning officer for the formal declaration, leaving us spread out amongst the throng.  Spencer, Adam and I nevertheless stood stoically together as a mix of gasps, shouts and cheers greeted our results.  We shook each other's hands and exchanged condolences - but our opponents were out of reach, so we couldn't congratulate them in person.  That really wasn't satisfactory, and I hope Greenwich choreographs it better in future.

It wasn't long before I learned a very welcome lesson of defeat:  People really can be extraordinarily kind to you.  Without embarrassing them, I'm very grateful to those former colleagues - of all parties- who offered kind words that day, and those who have done since.  Reading some of their generous messages has felt almost like reading my own obituaries, and been a reminder that whatever harsh things are sometimes said in politics, there is room for real human decency too.

There was also no time to be glum:  The last result to be declared was Eltham South, and I was absolutely thrilled that Matt Clare, Nuala Geary and Mark Elliott were triumphant there.  Matt Hartley had earlier been elected with Mandy Brinkhurst and John Hills in Coldharbour and New Eltham, whilst Geoff Brighty had seen off a formidable Labour challenge to hold his seat in Blackheath Westcombe.  All of them are great friends, and I had no desire to rain on their parade.  Delighted to have some good news, I cheered their results with genuine enthusiasm and congratulated the winners with broad smiles and hugs all round.

I walked back from the count to my flat.  The sun was setting over the Town Hall as I passed, and I had time to contemplate the future as I meandered the few miles from Woolwich to Eltham.  I popped to the shops to buy some groceries - was it my imagination, or did that person I passed in the aisle recognise me and look away?  I was probably being paranoid.  But the shop manager knew me, and asked about the election.  I told him I'd lost, then listened as he talked about a local issue that was troubling him.  "Afraid I can't really help much now" I had to say.   The same thing happened at the Indian takeaway when I stopped to get a curry.  Kind as they were, I was relieved to get home and shut the world out for a bit.

The next day, as the new Conservative Council Group had their first meeting, I was at a neighbour's house for a summer barbecue.  It rained, but there was lots of laughter - I joked it was my version of John Major's post-defeat trip to the Oval.

On the Tuesday after the election I went into the Town Hall to say some farewells to staff and clear my desk. When you lose office, you do so quite literally. Woolwich Town Hall is a truly lovely building, and I was privileged to be able to work there.  The Mayor was kind enough to invite me for tea in the Parlour, which was a kind gesture, and a much gentler way to mark my departure than the chaotic scenes at the Waterfront Leisure Centre.  Then I went to the Council Chamber, removed the name-tag from my seat on the front-bench, and left the building.

Since then, I've been adjusting to sudden post-Council life.  The weekly flow of committee papers has ceased, my Council email was switched off, and a lady from the IT department phoned to remind me to return my Blackberry and ID pass.  My diary may now have fewer evening meetings, but the gaps have been pleasingly filled with friends wanting to go for drinks and dinner to catch up.

Politics can be a brutal business, and every politician would rather win an election than lose one. But I can honestly say that the experience of defeat has been fascinating.  As someone who has made the study of political opposition such a central part of my professional life, it has been an invaluable practical lesson.  I still have some adjusting to do, but what a chapter it has been.


M said...

Nigel = this is a tiny tiny tiny comment. Why don't candidates line up behind the returning officer, and make speeches?? I am pretty sure that dates from sometime in the 1990s when a BNP (losing) candidate used it as an excuse for a set piece rally with salutes to the leader and much else. Since then it has become a tradition (not sure if it is still a good one or not)
See you soon - and chin up - there is a lot to move on to

MiceElf said...

What a measured and dignified piece. Although I'm on the left, I strongly believe that democracy requires a strong opposition and I'm sorry you lost.