Thoughts on an Election (not the ones you think I’m thinking)

In this blog I talk about accessibility, kindness, vulnerability and trauma in our political, adversarial system - some early thoughts after my experience as a candidate.


There’s always a lot of “thoughts” that happen after an election. Did the Leader do enough* (*yes), did we have the right message, strategy, did we work hard enough, etc. They tend to be political, either happy or despairing, and then we move on to the next election with lessons learned or not, and we do it all again. I might even write something like that when it is less fresh and recent.


But there were some thoughts that kept hitting me as I was campaigning, more about our whole political culture and the adversarial system we have, and other aspects. I thought they were worth sharing, and I hope that some people find them helpful.


Accessibility


In a word, it is shit.


Our electoral system does not work for disabled candidates. If anyone tries to tell you it does, then they are either lying, or in a safe seat and can therefore be content in a parallel electoral universe.


Our electoral system doesn’t even work for disabled voters, let alone candidates. A friend told me on the day she had to be lifted into a polling station by her husband because the polling station staff couldn’t get the accessible route open. When confronted the response was largely a shrug, and to say they tried but there was nothing they could do. I know this will be strange to hear from a liberal, but those people have no business being involved in any capacity, in our democracy.


They are already mandated to make reasonable adjustments by law – and yet still, far too often, people believe it is a nice extra, something they should do if they can. I would, if I had the chance, advocate for a legal responsibility to protect people’s voting rights if they are disabled. That is, there should be a legal duty to provide that voting opportunity, not just make reasonable adjustments.

Not many of these!


I am sure our electoral system will be looked at in this Senedd term, and this needs to be the first adjustment made.

For disabled candidates too, the system is a failure. And this is a harder one to address, because it is a fact that political parties are unbalanced in terms of resources and volunteers. That’s got to be allowed in an open democracy – if more people want to donate to, or volunteer for, a party, if businesses or unions wish to support a party, that must be allowed. But we then have to accept that disabled candidates are going to be at a massive disadvantage.


I am lucky, to an extent, that my disability means I can still, most of the time, walk. But I am not exaggerating when I say this election has caused me more physical pain and difficulty than the past ten years. The amount of times I came home unable to walk, worrying about being able to make it to the toilet, worrying about sleeping, or being able to sit in a desk for meetings the next day, showed me that this was not sustainable. I want to stand again, I really do – but I’m genuinely not sure I can put my body and my mental health through it again.


I hope it was worth it, I hope that disabled people in other parties saw me campaigning and thought it meant the world was open to them too. I really do. But the brutal truth is that I couldn’t campaign as much as non-disabled candidates, even if – humility aside – I could definitely campaign just as well.


I have no answers, but there have to be very, very difficult questions asked in the next Senedd, and any reform of our electoral system if it comes, must take into account the experiences of disabled people participating at any and every level, in our democracy.


Kindness


Pass the sick bucket, I hear some of you shout.


But if so, please go elsewhere, because I’m going to talk about it.


Kindness in politics is hard. How do you act with kindness and decency, in a platform where you have to rip seven shades of shit out of each other? How do you want with gentleness and humility, when you are expected to be a thrusting, in-your-face ego-on-legs?


I was struck by the contrast several times, between what I was doing with my full-time professional role, and what I was expected by the political system, to do as a candidate. In my professional role, I was attending training on the ‘thinking environment’, where you are trained to listen, deeply, without interrupting. Where you are trained to give people space to explore their own solutions without stymying their thoughts. Where you are trained to put people at ease, to encourage and enable.


Which is the exact opposite of what our political system requires. You want to get your point in, and quickly. You want to show that your party is the best (it is, but see, isn’t that part of the problem?), that your solutions are the only workable ones, that the other party is dangerous or foolish, and much more. There were times when I was in hustings where I realized that I liked my opponents. In one, I was opposite Delyth Jewell for Caerphilly, Mark Isherwood for Delyn, and (I think!) Jeremy Miles – but a lot of them have merged into one! (The hustings, not the candidates!)


As we all talked, I realized something.


We all had part of the answer. I don’t mean about the big economic direction of Wales, we had different views on that. But in terms of disability rights (which was the hustings we were in), we all held different parts of the solution, and I realized that the fear of being attacked, or undermining our political stance, was preventing us from adopting similar human approaches like the thinking environment.


I don’t have any answers, again. Sorry.


Except to say that perhaps we need to have a space for politicians across all the spectrums, to discuss issues like disability, gender equality, LGBT+ rights, social care reform, things that shouldn’t be ideological. Perhaps that space could use the thinking environment, and perhaps that space could help regrow the partnership and consensus focus that we had in the early years of devolution.


The only people who suffer from our reliance on an adversarial system and approach are the people we want to help.


Vulnerability


Being vulnerable is tricky too.


I had always made myself a vow that if or when I stood for election, I would be open about things that had happened to me, or things that I had struggled with. I spoke about most of them during the campaign, and I hope that it helped people see politicians as more human.


After two hustings in particular, I finished, and went to bed, and hid under the covers. Even writing this feels ill-advised to write. If I ever do stand again, perhaps another party will suggest I am not resilient enough to stand, or that I am weak. Perhaps it won’t be officially written, but shown to enough swing voters who wonder whether I am ‘stable’ enough to be their representative.


Well, screw that.


Because if that’s the politician people want, I will never be that. I will be open about what I struggle with, and I hope that if I am, other politicians will. Wales has always been good in that sense, so I hope I am not alone.

Politicians are human too. Honest, guv!


I hid after two particular hustings, feeling overwhelmed by the emotions I shared, in public settings, with people who are on paper, out to defeat you.


My first was talking from the heart about how I struggled with my disability. I opened myself up and made myself vulnerable, but unlike almost any other setting, because it is political, that shared vulnerability just hangs there in the air. You don’t know whether people think you are being cynical and using your experiences to get their votes. You don’t know whether people disbelieve you. But what you feel is an absence of that human connection, the reassurance that they have heard your vulnerability and pain. On that basis, it is easy to see why politicians don’t make themselves vulnerable.


My second was talking about sexual and emotional abuse in school. This was one which I found – and find – incredibly hard to talk about or write about. But it is my lived experience, in front of teachers, that low-to-mid level abuse happened, and that it has badly affected me for years. I shared this in the WEN Hustings, and this time, the candidate after me (Helen, from the Greens, a brilliant candidate) stopped what she was about to say, and exchanged a human sympathy. I haven’t yet messaged her to say how much this meant. But still, despite that, I took time away to hide after that hustings, fighting the feelings of embarrassment and shame for sharing too much, or not being ‘professional’, or ‘political’.


And as I reflected on that, I wondered if there are many more politicians who are holding on to experiences that they dare not share, or choose not to, and so our political class continues to seem distant and inhuman to real voters. Not because we are, but because we are scared to be human and close.


And this is a crunch issue. Because something changes when you become a politician. Suddenly, even if you are a no-hope Lib Dem standing in one of the safest Labour seats in Wales, you become a target. People think it is acceptable to talk to you as if you are dirt, or corrupt, or actively out for yourself. Those comments were hard, I have to admit.


When it was my fifth day out in the evening, and every step was agony, when I was tired and cold, to be told “you’re all the same, just in it for yourselves”, I wanted to scream. Nothing in this campaign was for myself. I wanted to watch Line of Duty in a blanket, with a fire on and a mug of hot chocolate. That’s what I would do for myself, not pound the streets of Newbridge in the rain. I did that because I believe that people should always have a genuine choice in who they vote for, and because I believed that I had something unique to offer.


I don’t mean politicians shouldn’t be scrutinized, and I am not someone who demands blind respect just because I am campaigning. Be critical, be direct, be robust, by all means. But don’t accuse me of campaigning for selfish reasons.


But perhaps this is a Catch-22? When I was human back to people who were treating me inhumanely, they changed. Perhaps what we are seeing is a breakdown between a political class that is scared to be vulnerable, and a group of citizens that see them as distant and removed from reality? Perhaps it is our shared human vulnerability that is one way to bridge this ever-growing gulf between candidates and electorate.


Trauma


During any election, you hear horrible things. People talk to you about their problems, and it is one reason I love campaigning. But the number and variety is significant. In one of my first calls, I spoke to a woman whose wife was dying of cancer, who couldn’t get a vaccine. I was able to help signpost her and she got a vaccine booked in for the next Monday – my proudest achievement actually, of my whole campaign.


I spoke to someone who couldn’t access mental health services after a miscarriage, and she wanted to know how I would make that better for her, how I would get her the service she needed.


These are just two examples of the conversations you might have as a candidate, whether successful or not.


And as I was campaigning, I realized that politicians don’t get the same psychological support as other professions that work to help people with challenging situations or tough times. There’s a concept from my day job, of vicarious trauma. Of professionals without mental health support who become burned out, or cynical, or who begin to dehumanize the people they encounter. One of the solutions to that, is to ensure high quality therapeutic support for professionals, to give them a space to talk about that secondary trauma.


Now, I am not for one minute suggesting that my small and short campaign in Islwyn requires trauma therapy. Not for one second. But if I was a candidate and then a Senedd member, for year after year, and these were conversations I was having regularly, and there was an expectation placed on me to fix it, I wonder if some therapeutic support might be helpful?


I don’t know if this is offered by the Senedd Commission, but if it is not, perhaps it should be?

How do politicians and voters maintain their human connection?


Conclusion:


We are at a crossroads in this next Senedd. We all, I think, after this election, know that our electoral system needs to change. Whether it is because voters find it confusing, or because we know that a more proportional system helps women, disabled people and other people with protected characteristics be elected, we need a better way.


We also need a better way to deliver good scrutiny, in a human and (where possible) non-political way.


These are just some early and scattered thoughts based on this experience.


I’d be welcome to hear your own, whether you were a candidate, a campaigner, a voter – or all three!

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