• Author:Ben Jones
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A very different general election experience

My wife and I have just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. A cause of celebration and perhaps not an inevitable milestone for us to reach after our first meeting. We worked at the same organisation – the GMC – and were introduced in a professional capacity by a colleague. She – thinking I assume that it may impress the future Mrs J who has a PhD in Public Policy and worked for several years in Parliament – mentioned that I was a parliamentary candidate and wanted to be an MP. “You know what they say; politics is showbusiness for ugly people” came the reply.

I reflect on this at a time of other anniversaries. I was 37 yesterday (more birthday than anniversary I guess!) and typing this nearly five years to the day since my name appeared on a ballot paper in a general election.

I was the Tory candidate in the Labour stronghold of Halton – combining parts of Widnes and Runcorn in the north west of England. I spent 18 months as the candidate and consider that time to have been a real privilege. I was given the opportunity to meet many fantastic people, doing superb things for their local communities and caring passionately about the future of their families, their towns and their country. It was an amazing experience and one I will treasure forever- but there is a but.

When you are a candidate you are in a local bubble. You spend your time knocking on doors, posting leaflets through letterboxes, giving out leaflets at railways stations, putting leaflets on car windscreens, dreaming about leaflets and generally being obsessed with leaflets. You take part in some hustings where you debate in front of an audience with your fellow candidates and discuss some of the big issues of the day but outside of that you spend the campaign in your world- in your constituency and neighbouring marginal seats. You think about – no, worry about – the national picture and its impact on your result and the country but you can do very little to influence it – unless you do something very stupid!

In truth, the overall campaign happens to you. It happens around you. Although you are in the middle of your small piece of it, you feel like you are on its periphery of the main event. And you are.

This election – in 2015 – is the first since I joined the Conservative Party in 1992 that I have not been actively involved as a candidate, party officer or hands on campaigner. My involvement has been as an observer – a passionate, interested and committed one, but an observer none the less. It is a strange and enjoyable vista. It has allowed me time to really follow the campaign – the Daily Politics and BBC radio have been my essential companion – and reasonably objectively assess the campaigns of the parties, including my own. It also has allowed me time to see the whole picture and what has happened. It has allowed me the opportunity to feel in the middle of it. What have I observed this time?

* The Tory campaign has done what it always seems to do at every national election – start slowly and pick up speed and build momentum (I am ignoring 1997 or 2001!). There have been famous wobbles in past campaigns and then a seemingly change of emphasis, drive and effort. This time is no different.
* David Cameron looked far too relaxed and too cool for many’s tastes in the first few weeks and so now is ‘banging the drum’ and generally looking very excited and passionate – in shirt sleeves and no tie. I think he was playing it safe (hoping, perhaps expecting Ed Miliband to implode) and being very British about it in those early days and it came across as being ambivalent, aloof. He has put that right now. He has said he is “pumped” and he looks it. Anyone tuning in to the campaign late having missed the early skirmishes will see him as the leader with the bit between his teeth and the man with fire in his belly- has he left it too late?
* Ed Miliband has done much better than many thought he would – me included. He started from a low expectations base but has exceeded those and then some. He was doing very well until his stumble – no not off the stage but with his response on borrowing and spending under the last Labour government. He lost momentum then and the ‘can Labour be trusted with the economy?’ narrative has been reinvigorated.
* Nick Clegg continues to be the outstanding communicator in British politics and has performed consistently better than his opponents in all parts of this campaign and yet the electorate appear to have already decided about him. He is damaged goods. That is a real shame. His ‘betrayal’ on tuition fees reflects two things; some naivety on his part when the promise was made and how its subsequent breaking was communicated but more importantly, how immature coalition politics still is in Britain. Hung parliaments and coalitions mean more of this not less. More compromise. Less dogma. More ambiguity. And perhaps better government.
* A main theme of the election has been trust. Who do you trust? Do you trust any of them. The parties – all parties – have struggled to respond to the concern of the public who say can we believe your promises. Pledges carved in stone or promising to change the law to prevent you breaking your promises strike me as profoundly silly ways of building trust. We will see if they work on Thursday.
* The era of two or three party politics is over. This election more than any other has shown that as a country we are looking for different solutions, ideas and personalities than we have been used to receiving. As a long-standing supporter of electoral reform, I hope this campaign will help the drive for a fairer voting system in future, which reflects our country better than our current system.
* That said, I think the Greens and other smaller parties (not the SNP) have blown a big moment. They were given much greater profile this time through the debates and haven’t made that pay.
* Interestingly, people would like the coalition to be on the ballot – they would like a more sophisticated choice than we are offering them – back to electoral reform!
* The pollsters don’t know who is going to win or what the outcome will be. I think the result will look very different – certainly across different parts of the UK – than the polls suggest and that we will need a better model of polling next time.
* It feels a lot like 1992 to me. A very close election. I expect a big turnout – by recent standards. A government emerging from recession asking for more time to finish its work. An electorate not quite sure of the leadership qualities of the main opposition. A number of key marginals deciding the election. I think we could be surprised by the final results when they come in – it may be more decisive – at least for the biggest party than the polls are suggesting.
* We are just around 36 hours from the polls opening and it is still up for grabs. As someone once said, ‘we all start from zero when the polls open”. It is in the people’s hands and I expect some late movement to be decisive as those who have remained unsure have to make a decision as they pick up that pencil on Thursday.

Even though the consensus view is that this election has been dull – perhaps the least eventful in recent campaigns, I have enjoyed it immensely. I will enjoy it even more if – bleary-eyed and tired on Friday morning the country has delivered the verdict I hope desperately for.

On Thursday millions of us will make the short trip to our local poling station – commandeered for the day from local schools, churches and community groups- and place a cross on a piece of paper with a stubby Ikea-like pencil. By doing that we will help pick the government of our country. We – not the media, not the pollsters, not politicians- we get to choose who governs our magnificent country. What a wonderful feeling it is to live in a democracy. What a wonderful feeling it is to have that freedom. Five years ago, 8339 people used that freedom and trusted me with their vote in Halton. Showbusiness it wasn’t but it was a wonderful, humbling feeling all the same.