Emma Ware: Election campaign lessons from Epsom

3 Jun

Emma Ware is about to embark upon a law degree at Kings College London. She has previously worked in the City, served in the British Army, and played cricket for Surrey. She stood in this year’s County Council elections in Surrey.

As I strode purposefully up the steep incline of Langley Vale, the breeze playing with the blue ribands on my rosette, all I could hear was the turn of leather in my shoes. Then, from across the way, a voice, shrill, as though a bagpipe had been run through by a startled cat. A woman, addressing me and pointing vigorously. According to her I was “full of effluence” (I’m paraphrasing to get past the censors) and we (I’m assuming she meant the Conservative Party) are “a bunch of lady parts.” I raised my hand in acknowledgement and shouted back, “I’ll put you down as a maybe then!” She responded with a hand signal that I don’t think she’d learnt from the Highway Code. Luckily this was the final day of my campaign and the first time I’d been spoken to so harshly. If this had happened on the first day, things may not have gone so well.

I stood in the recent local elections as the Surrey County Council candidate for Epsom Town & Downs. I was a first timer and here is how it went and what I learnt.

Be yourself – everyone else is taken (Oscar Wilde)

One of the dilemmas for a first-time candidate is how to promote yourself. You have no achievements to shout about or no record to defend. All you have is you. I’m a bit of a praise junkie and the thought of asking total strangers not only to like me but to essentially put their faith in me put me in a bit of a funk. So, on the doorstep I decided to talk about who I was and what I wanted and spoke to people, resident to resident. I talked about all manner of things from playing cricket to swerving potholes on my Vespa. Of course, I’d done my homework but when people asked me things I didn’t know, I was honest. I didn’t try and sound like a politician and dodge the question. I said:

“I don’t know but now I’m going to find out!”

Everybody likes you – well, almost everybody

Linked to my pathetic need for praise is a deep desire to be liked. I’d canvassed as a Tory on many occasions and had the usual abuse but this time it was my face on the leaflet; would I take it personally, would I get upset? In fact, I found being the candidate meant that I got a better reception than when I’d been an activist. Don’t get me wrong – occasionally people still told me they would rather cut off their own foot than vote Conservative, but those same people also said, sorry, thank you for calling and often even – good luck! British people are, on the whole, very polite and very nice.

Be nice

They say death and taxes are the only certainties in life; there is a third in mine, being a Conservative. However, I am a fierce believer in cross party politics. The opposition are not your enemy. From parish to parliament, most politicians come from a rare breed who are willing to make sacrifices to help others. We’re all trying to improve society – we just disagree on the roadmap, that to me is not a reason to be undignified or ugly to one another. Often by listening rather than hectoring you can learn something, become more tolerant and therefore serve those you represent better. Each time I ran into my oppo, be it in a cul-de-sac, polling station, or at the count, I made it a personal obligation to approach, engage, and be civil. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it made me feel fuzzy and warm, but it did diminish the negativity.

It’s enormous fun

Standing for election sates the appetite for intellectual argument, strategy, teamwork, physical activity, competition, and hard work. It’s an overused assertion but no two days are the same. It can be amusing – the wife who mouthed over her husband’s shoulder that she’d vote for me while he ranted about wallpaper and PPE. It can be devastating – the lady I called on whose daughter had to tell me she’d died only an hour earlier. It can be awkward – the day one of my close friends told me they’d never vote for me. It can be surprising – the day I mistakenly knocked on the door of the Labour candidate. It can be eyepopping – the chap who came to the door in an extremely tiny towel. But mostly it’s just tremendous fun – you find levels of energy and adrenalin that are intoxicating and terrifyingly addictive.

You can always do more – but at some point, you must stop

At the count we peered at the stacks of ballot papers. It was achingly close. My emotions tumbled and fizzed. This was the culmination of 2,000 doors knocked, 10,000 leaflets delivered and the thrall of my every waking thought, dream, and nightmare for months. Finally, the returning officer read out the numbers, alphabetically, I was last. I couldn’t compute what she’d said, luckily my agent had, and he called for a recount. I was second, by 8 votes!

On the previous day, polling day, we’d set off from the constituency office in the early morning. We didn’t stop knocking up and delivering leaflets all day. At 9pm I stopped and looked up into the encroaching gloom. Another hour won’t make any difference. The campaign was over.

When the recount was completed, they had only managed to find an extra vote for my opponent. I had lost by nine. My mind immediately went back to that moment on the pavement gazing exhausted at the sky. But I knew in my heart I had left everything on the pitch, that hour didn’t matter, at some point you must stop.

On my very first day of canvassing, as I checked my clipboard, I suddenly heard running feet. The feet got louder and then my name “You’re that Emma Ware aren’t you?” Bracing myself, I turned and saw a woman of similar age to my own. Out of breath she stopped and began to thank me effusively for a campaign I’d run to open a car park that would mean her disabled daughter would have access on to Epsom Downs. Glassy-eyed and overwhelmed with gratitude she told me I’d made a huge difference to her daughter’s life.

For the rest of the campaign, I carried the look in that mum’s eyes with me: for every time it rained, for every time someone moaned about Brexit for 20 minutes, for every time I felt so tired I could cry, for every time my children complained that they didn’t see me anymore, for every time I walked up a steep 100m driveway just to be told to no thank you, and for every time I was enveloped with doubt, the look in her eyes reminded me why I was doing this. I’m eternally grateful I met her on that first day and not the crazy bagpipe cat lady of Langley Vale.