Ross McCafferty: when I tried to become a councillor

A tale of chance and procedure saw one journalist come very close to a different career path.

It seems that as we become older, we expect certain people that are involved in our lives to be older than us.

Doctors, for one. Politicians, for another.

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I was reminded of this recently when I found a leaflet for a local council candidate in my parent’s house and remarked that she was ‘far too young to be a councillor’.

Never one to indulge such rampant ageism, my mother quickly reminded me that I had tried to become a councillor aged just 21.


It’s a memory I appear to have done my level best to repress – I’m of course no longer party political, having followed the route taken by many journalists of dabbling in a political movement before deciding that speaking truth to power can be as effective as wielding it.

Before coming to my senses, I had a brief dalliance with the SNP, who I worked for unofficially on social and digital media in the build up to the 2011 election at Holyrood.

Why the council?

There’s no point pretending, I wanted to be a politician – elected office was where I saw my future, I was young and idealistic (the latter, a cynic would suggest, being the wrong trait for an aspiring politician to have).

Also, as a poor student in his final year, the decent pay packet for what remains technically a part time job was very appealing.

In terms of slightly more lofty aspirations, I also thought that chronicling my work as a councillor would make for a unique and interesting dissertation.

I’d previously worked for one of the party’s MSPs dealing with casework, so figured I had a decent enough grasp of that to help the great and the good of my ward sort out their problems.


If you want to be an independent candidate for a council, the administrative hoops that you have to jump through are all through the council itself.

If you want to represent a party, then there is a lot more to it.

In my case, especially after the SNP’s success being attributed to the party’s iron discipline, that involved an application form, and a ‘candidate assessment day’.

For the uninitiated, these events are a little like the kind of dreary away days as depicted in the classic ‘Training’ episode of The Office.

Team-building exercises, group discussions, defending a policy that is drawn at random to prove your debating prowess, I can’t pretend to remember many details, save from a poorly received joke about World War Z filming in Glasgow and being unable to tell Zombies from drunken locals.

I returned for a one-on-one interview with three party officials – it is a sign of the SNP’s success that one is now an MSP and the other two MPs – on the coincidentally auspicious date of September 18 2011.


A mere three days later, I found out I had been successful, despite being convinced I had fluffed my lines by refusing to grant my hypothetical approval to a hypothetical incinerator in my interview.

The process from here, became convoluted, though I’m not sure whether that was my own branch being slower than usual, or whether it was ordinary party bureaucracy.

Myself and the other candidates had to be approved by the local branch, then we had to enter into competitions for the various wards.

I could tell, when I made my pitch to the distinctly older members of my branch, that many were sceptical of my youth.

Thankfully, my speech went down better than one of my fellow candidates, who in a bid to prove how well-known he was, spoke of being recognised on holiday by a local “100,000 miles away”.

A questioner rather unkindly pointed out this meant he was playing golf nearer the Moon than Majorca, and my occasionally stutters were almost immediately forgotten.

The Ballot Box drama

As it transpired, myself and a chartered accountant had both put forward to stand in my local ward – replacing a long-serving councillor who was retiring.

The SNP were standing only one candidate in the ward, so that meant that the local members would need to vote in a secret ballot to select one of us.

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Never have I realised how small local politics can be when I was told that I would have to pitch to these local members, those in the ward who joined at the branch or at HQ.

I envisaged marching door to door to speak to this unknown mass, crafting different letters for different areas, maybe even holding a meeting or two, so the many local members could hear my vision for the ward.

Then the e-mail from SNP Headquarters arrived with the details of those eligible to vote in the upcoming postal vote.

There were 19 of them.

Play your cards right

A mammoth 75 per cent turnout saw 14 members in the ward cast their vote, including myself.

My opponent didn’t get a vote because, as I had rather cattily noted in my address to the local members, he didn’t live in the local area.

There was no Jeremy Paxman round the clock coverage when the votes were counted, just a simple e-mail from party HQ telling us which of the two potential candidates had won.

It had to be one of us. Except it wasn’t.

The vote had resulted in a draw, seven votes apiece, and we resorted to one of the most bizarre events I have ever seen in any election, as a voter, candidate, or journalist.

A few days after the momentous results came in, myself, my opponent, the local party chairman, and a witness were summoned to select a card from a deck.

Highest card would win the selection, and be the candidate.

I still cringe thinking at all the procedural niceties that went into it, my official query on whether aces were high, the stoic face of the ‘witness’ and even the offer to make sure the deck of cards was beyond reproach.

Adding to the drama, and the ridiculousness of our micro-political milieu, was the fact that my opponent didn’t arrive to the appointed location at the appointed time.

Despite my protests that if it was ‘pistols at dawn’ and the other gunslinger had slept in, I would be declared the victor, a card was selected on his behalf.

If memory serves, I drew a seven, and my opponent, a Queen.

The irony of an avowed Republican winning thanks to that card wasn’t lost on me, although at least I hadn’t drawn the joker.

The Aftermath

Funnily enough, I quickly found myself disillusioned with party politics, especially after getting into trouble for ‘live tweeting’ the selection process.

To be fair, this was when political parties still viewed social media with some suspicion, nowadays a council candidate could probably ‘dab’ at a hustings and still be lauded by colleagues.

Shortly after, I left the party and finished my final year at University before starting work as a social media journalist, where live tweeting is encouraged, not frowned upon.

Since then, I’ve covered all manner of subjects, but especially politics, and have done so without fear or favour.

Sometimes I think about my bad luck on that fateful card-cutting day, and wonder how different things could have been.

Then I remember the great work I get to do now, and realise I was the lucky one all along.