FOR journalists elections are up there among the big-ticket items: the events that attracted you to the job in the first place, the moments that change lives. It’s all about the box-office events: the dramatic launch of the manifestos, the leaders’ television debates, the swings and roundabout of the opinion polls, mounting tension as the big day approaches.
I’ve almost lost count of the number of elections I’ve covered in newspapers in Scotland but this year I got to see an election from a different angle – that of an SNP candidate on the regional list for South of Scotland.
And so on this day, the day when we see democracy in action as we fulfil our civic duty and cast our votes, I’d like to pay tribute to the real heroes of this – and indeed every – election: those grassroots activists who spend countless hours and expend limitless energy on the streets of our towns and cities promoting their candidates and getting the vote out.
“Countless hours”, “limitless energy” … clichés which can’t do justice to the sheer relentlessness of the demands placed on those who volunteer to work for their cause.
Only those who have experienced it for themselves can truly comprehend the soul-destroying terror of staring up at yet another long flight of tenement stairs
which lie between you and the letterboxes, through which you must push your leaflets to a sometimes ungrateful public.
Only those who have experienced it themselves can truly empathise with the hatred which rises in your soul at the scourge of the lowdown letterbox. After a long day on the campaign trail these are moment when you bend to reach one of these instruments of torture and truly doubt that you are going to make it back up.
It does not matter which party you are dedicating your efforts to when getting elected, you will all share the pain when those stiff gristles on some particularly difficult letterboxes rip your knuckle to shreds.
This is democracy in the raw: thousands of activists all over the country pushing themselves to get their candidate over the line and their party into power. Sometimes there is no hope of success, times when the more mundane chance to simply increasing your party’s share of the vote is the only possible victory you can achieve.
These campaigners are not working their socks off for their own gain. Candidates have an eye on the prize of winning a seat at Holyrood, but behind every one who does there is a dedicated band of supporters who literally go the extra mile with no hope of any benefits for themselves other than those they believe their local area and the whole country will enjoy if their candidate and their party win.
This is all new to me. I suppose I realised in some vague, general way that politics involved hard labour – no pun intended; this is one activity which all parties share. I haven’t taken part in any campaigning before and certainly nothing I’ve done this year matches the sheer determination of those branch members I’ve seen give their all for their case. I’ve watched in awe at their sheer persistence.
The scale of the work has come as a surprise. Thousands of leaflets to be delivered in each constituency. And once that’s done more thousands take their place. It’s not just the job of delivering them, campaign managers have to divide up the supply of leaflets and plot the delivery routes for maximum efficiency.
It all sounds so obvious when you write it down but I suspect you are like me and have never given the tasks involved more than a passing thought. Looking back, who did I think did all this work? The politics fairies? The people who carry these out are not the “little people” of politics. They are the giants.
I don’t want to paint too depressing a picture. If campaigning was all bad no-one would do it. In fact it’s more often a joyful experience than an endurance test (although it is that too).
Of course, this year’s campaign has been unlike any other, just as the times we live in are different to anything any of us has experienced before. The Covid restriction have for the most part ruled out campaigning together and even when that has been allowed, social distancing is the order of the day.
There is no team bonding over a drink in a pub at the end of the day. Campaigners have to stick rigidly to the rules because if they don’t the wrath of the gods will descend upon them.
But not even the Covid restrictions can completely dull the buzz of working together in common cause. And I’m sure all those trudging the streets will have their own favourite moments, even if it’s only those feelings of relief when you come across a street of main-door flats (and what bliss that is).
Mine include words of encouragement from the public, sometimes even from those who support another party. There’s an acknowledgement that campaigning is an essential part of the democratic process and is on the whole to be encouraged rather than disparaged. Politicians, rather like journalists, are not always held in high regard but the political process is widely respected and appreciated.
It’s easy to be cynical about politics, especially inside the media bubble. Last Sunday’s final episode of Line of Duty’s sixth season (I know, I know, you found it a bit of an anti-climax but bear with me) hit a chord with its portrayal of a system which rewards incompetence, rotten to the core and riddled with a corruption that goes largely unchallenged by those who prefer complacency to passion and integrity.
Line of Duty may be nominally about the dangerously close relationship between police and organised crime but the parallels with politics, and particularly Boris Johnson’s government, were staring viewers in the face.
The points it made were bleak – the good guys did not win – and they were true. But you can believe that and still recognise moments of hope when you see them.
I saw it on the campaign trail on an Ayrshire beach when an NHS worker approached Nicola Sturgeon with real gratitude for all that she had done during the pandemic to keep people safe and informed. There was genuine warmth between the two women when the SNP leader said, no, it was she who deserved thanks for her work on the front line in the battle against the virus. It was a touching moment and testament to politics’ power to do good.
The big events will continue to dominate the way we look at politics but sometimes it’s the smaller things – the people who work outside the limelight and away from the cameras, the moments you only see on the ground – that give you faith in a better world.