For political geeks like Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, general elections are the best time of the year.
When I was little, my dad owned an Otter class dinghy that we would sail in St Andrews Bay. It was terrific but he sold it when my siblings and I grew up and moved out. One afternoon, during the 2016 Holyrood election, I was door knocking in Cramond when I noticed, under a tarpaulin in one drive, an Otter class dinghy. Not only that, but I was convinced it was the boat my dad had sold 20 years previously.
As it happened, the homeowner was just leaving to walk an angry little dog yapping at his heels and I commenced with my usual patter: “Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, I’m Alex Cole-Hamilton and I’m the Liberal Democrat candidate in the coming election, but before I go any further can I ask, is that an Otter?”
He stared at me incredulously and replied: “Are you quite mad? It’s a Jack Russell.”
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Whilst I’ve lost far more than I’ve won, this story is just one of the reasons I have come to love elections.
I thrive on the energy generated by these festivals of democracy. I love them for their unpredictability. The reality that the campaign trail has twists and turns for every party. It’s the one time in our democratic cycle when the political classes face 24/7 exposure to normal people. Political careers rise and fall under the test of that contact (just ask Theresa May).
That unpredictability can also be deeply frustrating. Political campaigns and the messages that underpin them are planned months in advance. Yet all that planning can be shattered in a heartbeat by a national incident, an identical policy launched by an opponent or a few badly chosen words from a poorly briefed candidate.
Not that kind of labour
For political geeks like me, it’s basically Christmas (on top of it actually being Christmas). I love the photo ops, the tricky, last-minute media interviews and I’m even cheerful delivering leaflets by the thousand in the rain, but above all I love the door knocking.
People instinctively recoil at the idea of political canvassing, of knocking the door of a complete stranger and asking them how they plan to vote. They expect that they are going to be wrong footed with highly detailed policy questions from local residents, or driven away in a shower of angry expletives. The reality is very different. Nobody is expecting you. The overwhelming majority of people are lovely (even if they have no intention of ever voting for you), and above all they’re just keen to get you off their doorstep as swiftly and as politely as possible.
All told I’ve knocked on more than 30,000 doors in the past five years and I could tell you some tales. Like the night in Craigleith I was invited in by a 96-year-old gentleman whose door I’d knocked. He gave me my first ever bagpipe lesson on the very pipes he had used to pipe the troops ashore at Sword Beach in Normandy on D-Day. I didn’t knock another door that night, but will carry that memory with me for all of my days.
Then there were the two women, separated by many streets and several years who answered the door to me with some dismay. When they told me they were in labour I asked them if they would consider voting Lib Dem on a tactical basis, they pointed out they didn’t mean that kind of Labour and they had answered the door expecting to greet the midwife.
These glimpses into people’s lives, these little slices of humanity are what make elections for me. It’s what politics should be about all the time – asking for the consent and the instruction of the communities we, as politicians would seek to serve, door by rain-drenched door.
It’s easy to forget that words like ‘democracy’ and ‘politics’ stem from ancient Greek words meaning ‘people’ and ‘citizens’. People make elections and that’s why I love them.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.