Monday, 6 July 2020

Of politics, post-politics and potential politics (or what Nick did next)

To date this blog has predominantly been about policy. Today, I wanted to make an exception and write something a little more personal.

For a few days in 2017, I thought that I had an opportunity to fulfill a decade long ambition. I joined the Conservative Party in 1998, not exactly a high point for the party, and quietly did a bit of very local campaigning. When I moved to the Bristol area in 2005, I didn't know many people so I threw myself into getting involved with vibrant local Conservative associations. Before I knew it, I was area Chairman for Bristol & Gloucestershire Conservative Future, a role I thoroughly enjoyed and took seriously building up a considerable increase in active participation. Most importantly, I achieved the initial aim, I made friends in the area.

It was at this point my political ambitions also started to develop. In the build up to the 2010 election I got to work alongside some fantastic candidates. I started to wonder about the idea of standing for national-level election myself. I made a big call. I really liked being involved in Bristol and South Gloucestershire, but I also had kept a close eye on politics in Wales. I applied to join the Senedd candidates list, a separate list to the Parliamentary candidates list within the Conservative Party. I was approved and applied for to stand. In Newport West I made the final three at the candidate selection. In Newport East I was selected. I polled the neat figure of 4,500 votes and took the Conservatives from third place to second (and Labour had more than twice as many votes). Even at this stage, I saw the Parliamentary candidates list as something for which I needed more experience. 

In 2012 another opportunity arose with the inaugural Police Commissioner elections. This is a niche election and it failed to gain much interest from the public. However, I do believe that directly-elected roles are not only a great way to improve accountability, they offer the opportunity to deliver real change. With the benefit of hindsight, I look at some good people I knew before their election to Parliament who have been ground down by the parliamentary whips from the inspiring characters they were when they entered Parliament. Some maintain that which made them a great candidate, but many fall to the institutionalised grind of party politics. In a directly elected role, you do not have a whip to answer to. Electorally unlikely as it was, if I had been elected as a Police Commissioner I would have fulfilled the role in a broadly Conservative manner because that was the platform I was elected on, but it would have been my interpretation of conservatism not that of the party machinery of the day. I know I am a lone voice in the wilderness when I say that the Police Commissioner role is one of the best jobs in politics, but I do believe it is. I performed respectably in an election that no-one noticed. It gave me a platform from which I did feel able to apply to the Parliamentary candidates list with some confidence.

The parliamentary assessment board is an intense process, but I was successful and that allowed me to apply for constituencies ahead of the 2015 General Election. I was selected in Newport West. I thought it was a good campaign and a respectable result with the gap to Labour being squeezed a little. What the raw result doesn't tell you is that in 2010 the Conservatives targeted the seat, as they also did in 2017 and 2019, but not in 2015. As a result, while those other campaigns had funding poured in and campaigners sent from other constituencies to help, I was required to balance my campaigning in Newport West with target seat campaigns elsewhere. With a week to go, I was told I was to spend 100% of my time in the neighbouring target constituency and no-time in Newport. I may not have entirely followed this instruction, but I did ensure that there was plenty of support from Newport West for the eventually successful campaign in Cardiff North.

By this stage I was well and truly on the candidate treadmill. I'd travel across the country at my own cost to support candidates in by-elections. This wasn't an option, the party required it. Indeed, the party takes anyone on the approved candidates list for granted as a source of free labour. That assumption should not be the case, but when you feel part of the team it is also an enjoyable experience to travel around and meet other campaigners. You always come back with stories.

Before I touch upon 2017, it is important to give some context. Boundary change proposals were working their way through Parliament which would have made my home constituency into a safe(r) Labour seat. It was not anticipated that there would be another election until 2020. I had pretty much done all that the Conservative Party had asked of me, and I'd argue often went above and beyond. 

I was driving to the Highlands when the snap-General Election was called. Within 90 minutes, I'd had a call from the Conservative Party office in Wales asking if I would like to be considered for Newport West. I immediately said yes. I expected there to be a candidate selection process, but felt confident I could make a good case for being re-selected. This time it was going to be a target constituency campaign and the polls indicated it was winnable.

At some point in the following days the situation changed. A very small number of unaccountable decision-makers decided that instead of allowing a contest they would hand pick a candidate. The candidate was capable and credible. In a contest, I may well have not been selected ahead of them, but there was to be no contest. This was a stitch up. Worse still, it became apparent that the Welsh Conservatives were ignoring the approved candidates process entirely and phoning people they wanted to stand out of the blue. Fairness and meritocracy were sacrificed and for no productive purpose as seats were lost. The observant among you may have noted my real error was not staying in Scotland for the election where the Tories made multiple gains!

There were a lot of moving parts during the 2017 decision making and the cover-up associated with it. Very few people took the decision, they went out of their way to avoid accountability and sought to deflect the blame onto others. The cowards. However beyond the decision-makers, very few spoke up when they saw the unfairness of it either. Just one Assembly Member made contact with me. I understood why they didn't because it is that submissive compliance supposedly for the greater good of the party brand which is required, but it does hurt when they are people you campaigned alongside and in many cases regarded as friends. By 2019, we saw the same measure of submission when Boris Johnson chose to purge MPs from the Conservative Party. If senior Tories were not prepared to speak up for Ken Clarke, Nicholas Soames and Rory Stewart, I must have been really kidding myself to think they'd speak up for little old me.

I won't go into everything I subsequently discovered about the decisions of 2017. I don't especially want to relive it and it would achieve nothing to rake over today.  I did fight my corner within the party structure. I sought answers both as to why I couldn't be considered in 2017 and then subsequently as to what my future opportunities would be. Every avenue I pursued simply saw the party double-down on that initial decision by the unaccountable few. It is not a pleasant experience when an organisation you've given time, money and effort to simply shuns you.

If you've read this far, you deserve to get something out of it. So, this is a good point for me to give a tip to anyone who might be on that candidate treadmill today. My advice is make sure you diversify your interests. Without really realising it, nearly everything I was doing with my time in some way related to politics. In good times, I loved that, but when the situation turned sour suddenly there was no obvious route to light relief. Nothing with which to balance up the disappointment. It was a tough way to learn that lesson, but a useful lesson it was nonetheless and it resonates in other aspects of life too. Diversification is a good plan.

Some, much appreciated, effort had been made locally to keep me involved, but I knew really that I'd never get the same enjoyment I once did out of campaigning after the experience of 2017. The final decision to cancel my membership came in early 2019. A by-election was to take place in Newport West. If any of those words I'd heard from the hierarchy of the Welsh Tory Party were to mean anything this was the time at which at least someone would make contact. They did not. The door was demonstrably no longer ajar.

My own ambition aside, the Conservative Party and I had gradually diverged on policy too in the post-Cameron years. That is a separate story, but I felt it appropriate to reference in passing. Over all, I look back on my involvement with the Conservative Party fondly. There were many good times and I made a lot of friends, most of whom I still have! It is a party with many hard-working people committed to their community and their country. I also still hold a lot of respect for many of the under-pinning ideas of conservative philosophy.

To cover off the Tory story, I have jumped ahead a bit. I'd like to go back to 2017 for this next paragraph because this is about what I did next. After the disappointment of the 2017 General Election I felt a need to challenge myself and to find a new channel for my interest in politics. While I had done a bit of research before committing, it still felt like a rash moment when I signed up to study an MSc Econ in International Relations (part-time) at Cardiff University.  When I was younger I saw every exam or assessment as an obstacle to traverse to get to the next stage rather than something in which the better I did the more opportunities would open up. As a result, my A-level results would not have been good enough to study at Cardiff University at the time. This made it all the more special to be able to study at Cardiff. I distinctly remember very early on in the first class thinking "wow, these people are clever". Pleasingly, one thing I tend to find is that being around clever people brings out the best in me.

The decision to go back to university at age 37 was a little scary, but every moment of the taught course was brilliant. I covered a wide range of topics from human rights to technology, from political economy to espionage. My dissertation, which was largely enjoyable with periodic moments of frustration, compared the language of Brexit with that of Welsh nationalism.  I had recalled from when I was an undergrad student that there was a bit of a divide between the younger and mature students. I expected it to be the same, but even as a relative oldster I felt a part of everything. However, I do believe I was wise to opt out of the student union foam party.

I did a few other things post-2017 including a lot more travel. You have more time for such things when your itinerary isn't dictated by where the by-elections are taking place. No doubt though it was the studying which has left me looking back over my response to a disappointment in 2017 with a sense of pride in how I took that energy and interest and applied it in a different way and was eventually successful as a result. I have a 'virtual graduation ceremony' later this month.

How then do I view politics today? The above would be one heck of a preamble if I was about to announce my candidature for something! I'm not. The truth is that while my interest in playing a constructive role in politics remains strong, I no-longer feel like I am on the aforementioned candidate treadmill. I've put in a lot of effort to campaigns. I'm proud of each of them. I would have love to have been elected, but I've never fought a contest I was favourite to win.

The current state of politics is another topic worthy of a blog post or series of them. Once again, I shall just make passing comment that the current political debate is not one which I think is good for the country. Far too much focus is falling on what defines overly simplistic opposition and not enough on what can bring us together. I'm fortunate to have friends in many parties and I learn something from all of them. When we see opposition as a stimulus to ideas we gain from the experience. When we see it as something to 'cancel' because it does not match our own perspective, then we do ourselves and the politics we are involved with a damaging disservice.

I am relaxed in my political involvement in a way I could not be when I was chasing Conservative Candidates Department approval.Opportunities have already cropped up for me to stand for election again and, no doubt, more will emerge in future. I am in no rush and I will keep an open-mind.