Then and Now

General elections have become horribly boring. I think it is time to reminisce.

As I have undoubtedly mentioned before (old age is catching up with me so I do tend to repeat myself quite a bit), I was once, many moons ago, a constituency agent for a major political party. Indeed, I was, at the time of my appointment, the youngest ever agent employed by that party. That was because I was permitted to take the exams just before my 21st birthday (election agents were required by law to be at least 21 years old). I qualified as an agent a month or so before I was permitted to be an election agent. I took up my post, in Maldon in Essex, on my 21st birthday. I was really quite old by the time my first election came along six months later (in February 1974).

What was election campaigning like in those days compared to now?

It was wholly different. My constituency was blessed with three towns and about forty villages. We had thriving branches in all of them. In peace time (when there weren’t elections) my days were pretty fully occupied. I had an office, with a full time secretary, in Maldon and another office in Rochford, with a part-time secretary. I was expected to put in at least an eight hour office day on weekdays. But those forty-three branches all had evening and weekend events (wine and cheese parties, quiz nights, dinners with guest speakers etc.). The agent was expected to attend them all. And he did. For the two and a half years when I was agent for Maldon I devoted myself to my duties for at least 12 hours a day on six days a week (it was thought to be bad form to indulge in politics on Sundays). The reason, of course, was that the political party for which I worked had several thousand active volunteers.

During election campaigns things got much more frenetic. We had canvassers out every evening throughout the constituency. We had public meetings in every village and town (an average of three meetings a night). The candidate and I would end every day at about 11.30 at night with a nightcap and a discussion about the next day’s activities.

The poor people of the Maldon constituency could not possibly have been unaware of the election. Everyone would be called on. Leaflets would cascade through letter boxes. Invitations to meetings, just down the road, couldn’t conceivably be missed. There were posters in every other house and in fields along the main roads.

And the other parties, at least the main one, were just as active as we were.

What happens now? Practically no one knocks on doors. There are no public meetings. Yes, a few leaflets are put through our letter boxes (in Putney only the Liberal Democrats – who seem to have a schoolboy running as candidate – can be bothered to deliver leaflets). We are all expected to make our voting decisions from watching the awful box.

I really do think that to be desperately sad. But I know we have to be modern. There is now no place for the local campaign. Candidates are no longer expected to be capable of speaking in public. Their supporters grow fat as they lounge around doing nothing. And the voters are told they are to choose, not between the candidates standing in their constituencies, but between two presidential candidates called May and Corbyn.

Is it really such a good idea that elections are now deemed to be national, that they are only conducted on the airwaves? Of course it is not. But that is what we are stuck with.

Goodness, how horrid the modern world is.

Charles

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