Americans tend to find Britain’s electoral system frankly bizarre. That is understandable.
Here in Britain we “stand” for Parliament, while in America, you “run” for office—a difference of vocabulary that reflects a difference of speed, tone, and effort. An election campaign in the U.K. runs officially and at full throttle for no more than six weeks—usually four—although the preparations begin six months beforehand. And the prime minister determines the date, although it must be within five years of the previous election.
In Britain, it is rare to find a candidate who comes from the parliamentary constituency—or congressional district, as you would call it—where he’s standing. We are a nation of carpetbaggers, one where Hillary Clinton’s parachuting into New York is regarded as normal. Once elected, you’re expected to become a local, but a candidate with a local connection before his election has a rare asset.
And a third quirk of our system: In Britain, if you’re running for the first time, you’re required by your party to fight an “unwinnable” seat—one which is safely held by another party—to gain campaign experience. Once you have fought a campaign that from the outset you knew you could never win, you’re then well-positioned to run somewhere else with a reasonable chance of victory at the next election.
To add to the eccentricity, candidates wear rosettes—a blue rosette for the Conservatives, red for Labour, and yellow for the Liberal Democrats. An American friend of mine told me once that in the United States, such rosettes are only worn by prize bulls.
So it was that I stood as the Conservative Party candidate for the City of Durham in the general election of May 5, 2005. I live in London and grew up in the southwest of England. Durham is in the far northeast of the country, 264 miles from the capital. At every election in living memory, Labour has held the seat. In 2001, the Labour majority had more than 13,000 votes, and the Conservatives fell to third place behind the Liberal Democrats. It is, in every definition, an “unwinnable” seat for the Conservatives.
On a bitterly cold night in November—six months before polling day—I traveled north to face the members of the Durham City Conservative Party. I had applied to be their candidate for the election and, along with two other hopefuls, had been invited to a selection evening. We faced a hustings—each one of us made a short speech extolling our virtues and seeking their votes, like a miniature primary. The local Conservative activists and members then voted. I came out on top and was duly chosen as the candidate to fight the general election.
The first step on this path had been taken some two years before. To be eligible to run, you have to be approved by the national party headquarters, which entails completing an application form with your resume and references. Some fall at the first hurdle. Those who pass this test are invited to a day of interviews, team-building exercises, psychometrics, and public-speaking tests. These trials are supposedly designed to weed out anyone who is mad, bad, or dim. If you pass, you are on what is called the “candidates list,” which means that whenever a sitting member of Parliament (MP) or the candidate from the previous election announces he will not contest the seat again, the party in that constituency will invite applications. There is no limit to how many constituencies you can apply to, though once selected as the candidate for one you cannot pursue other applications. I went through several constituency applications before being given the honor of contesting the City of Durham.
Durham is an ancient and beautiful cathedral city, with one of the best universities in the country. The bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, is one of Anglicanism’s preeminent orthodox theologians. At first glance, it looks like natural Conservative territory. However, the majority of the voters live in the surrounding mining villages and have been Labour voters for decades. Their dislike of the Conservatives intensified when Margaret Thatcher shut down the mines in the 1980s. I knew that, barring a miracle, I would be returning to my day job after the election.
From my selection as the candidate in November, until the day Tony Blair officially called the election in early April, I shuttled between London and Durham. I had to get up to speed on local issues, make contact with key community leaders, learn my way around the area, and raise my profile with the local media. My father had grown up in County Durham, which was a tenuous but important link. Even more significantly, he had served in the Home Guard as a teenager during the Second World War, wearing the cap badge of the Durham Light Infantry. The “DLI,” as they are known, are loved by the people. There is even a DLI Museum. I referred to my father repeatedly and shamelessly, in order to show at least some local relevance.
Nationally, the Conservatives put all their resources and energy into target seats—marginals with thin Labour or Liberal Democrat majorities that we needed to win if we were to form the government. Britain is a parliamentary rather than a presidential system (although the way Tony Blair behaves, it’s sometimes hard to remember that). As such, the party with an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons forms the government. So as Durham City was regarded as unwinnable, my campaign received little attention from Conservative campaign headquarters.
I was, however, able to secure visits to the constituency from three prominent politicians who knew me personally. In February, I organized a pro-life rally with Britain’s leading pro-life politician, Lord David Alton of Liverpool. Interestingly, Alton used to be a Liberal MP and was tipped as a future Liberal leader. For some years he was the Liberal Democrat chief whip. But he resigned from his party when they formally adopted a pro-abortion platform and now sits in the House of Lords as an independent. With the Liberal Democrats targeting Durham as a seat they thought they could win, David Alton’s support for me—a Conservative—must have irked them a little.
I fought my campaign on values—specifically “life, liberty, justice, and responsibility.” Lord Alton’s visit was followed by that of a senior Conservative MP, John Bercow, who had been the party’s spokesman on international development. John traveled with me last year to the Thai-Burmese border, to see for himself the systematic and gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the Burmese junta against ethnic minority groups. Ever since then, he has been a formidable ally in my international human rights work, visiting Zimbabwe and Darfur. Together in Durham we visited a prison and addressed students at a local high school and an audience at the university. We spoke about trade justice, human rights, HIV/AIDS, and third-world poverty—topics that engaged students and confused my opponents.
Throughout the campaign, I highlighted my record as a human-rights activist. I did so because I care deeply about these issues and wanted to use the platform I had to raise awareness. I also, of course, knew that these were not issues normally associated in the electorate’s mind with Conservatives.
In each of the eight public debates with my Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents, I told the story of a young Shan boy whom I met in the jungles of eastern Burma. After crossing into Burma illegally and walking through the jungle for eight hours, up and down mountains and through rivers, across areas full of landmines not too far from the Burmese army, I came to a Shan village. I met a 15-year-old boy who told me how he had seen his parents shot dead in front of him, other villagers killed, and his village burned down. He looked into my eyes as he told his story. “Please—tell the world what is happening to us. Tell the world not to forget us,” he said. That, I told the voters of Durham, was my motivation in politics—to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak for the oppressed and the forgotten at home and abroad.
Not a single day went by without at least one person telling me I was in the wrong party. Almost no one could comprehend how I could be a Conservative a Tory, as we are known—and a human-rights activist.
I organized a public meeting on reconciliation in Israel and Palestine with Feras Qumseya, an inspiring American-based Palestinian Christian, and his Israeli friend Ohad Reifen in St. Nicholas’s Church in Durham’s Market Square. The church was packed, and the audience was electrified by what they heard. A Tory interested in peace in the Middle East?
A few weeks later, all three candidates were invited to address activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and at the end of the meeting left-wing activists lined up to speak to me, their brains short-circuited with incomprehension. “I don’t know what to do now,” said one puzzled man. “You are the only candidate with personal involvement and interest in human rights issues—but you’re a Tory. I want to vote for you, but I have never voted Tory in my life before
Nationally, the Conservatives based their platform around five phrases: more police, cleaner hospitals, school discipline, lower tax, and controlled immigration. I built on these national issues by adding the local concerns about council tax levels, binge drinking, and international issues of trade justice and human rights. While the nationwide campaign was in danger of being consumed by one single issue—immigration—I barely mentioned it. Our policy on immigration and asylum was extremely unpopular with the educated elite in the university and churches in Durham. It was also a policy I was personally uncomfortable with and unable to defend. So at every public meeting, when I was asked about it, I said that I believed we were right to address the issue, that the immigration and asylum system was in chaos, and that asylum-seekers whom I have personally worked with are disadvantaged because the system is uncontrolled. Nevertheless, I added that I did not support our policy of a cap on asylum seekers and withdrawal from the 1951 Refugee Convention. No candidate, after all, supports 100 percent of his party’s platform unless he is a robot; while I was enthusiastic about 99 percent of our manifesto, I disagreed with the party on this issue. That won me a lot of credit—both because it was what people wanted to hear and because they liked a candidate who could think for himself and not just trot out the party line.
I faced two female opponents with almost the same name. Labour’s previous MP had retired and the new candidate was Roberta Blackman-Woods. The Liberal Democrats put up Carol Woods, a local councilor. This gave me the opportunity for a little political humor: I argued that you couldn’t see the woods for the trees and urged voters not to get us lost in the woods.
The Liberal Democrats—the third party in our system—always present themselves as the honest party that wants to play fair, campaign on the issues, and clean up the system. Yet in truth they are the dirtiest of the lot. In Durham, they fought a nasty campaign. In one leaflet, they described me as “a lawyer from London”—yet I have never been a lawyer in my life. They bombarded people with literature far more than Labour or myself—urging people to vote for them to get Labour out.
Roberta, the Labour candidate, and I got along very well, both because we respected and liked each other, and because of our mutual dislike of the Liberal Democrats. She was worried about the Liberal Democrat threat, and I learned that when they met voters who were not voting Labour, she and her team were actively promoting me, encouraging residents to vote for me, in order to slow down the Liberal onslaught.
Once the election date was announced and the official campaign began, I moved to Durham full-time. For about five weeks I lived with a wonderful family. The husband was a theology tutor at the university and pastor of a church; his wife was a doctor. Ironically, they were lifelong Labour voters.
The heart of a British election is door-to-door campaigning, or “canvassing.” Delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, asking voters for their support, discussing issues with them—in all weather, rain or shine—was how I spent the majority of my time. I had some media coverage, too—the regional BBC news station, local newspapers and radio, and a Dutch journalist all followed my campaign.
American political campaigns tend to be well-funded and staffed by professionals. By contrast, a British election campaign—particularly in an unwinnable seat—is like a cross between Mr. Bean and a Carry On film. Operating out of a tiny office in a building with a “to let” sign out front, I had a volunteer campaign manager, a dozen helpers, and no more than £6,000 (about $10,500).
In the first two weeks of the campaign, it seemed like everything was going wrong. Election leaflets and posters that we had ordered were delayed. We had no vehicle. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were distributing leaflets daily saying that the Conservatives were out of the race. We relied on hand-made, photocopied literature to distribute on foot. At one point, we dug out a few standard party posters from past campaigns, and I trudged through farmers’ fields to hammer them up on the fences beside main roads.
Two weeks into the campaign, however, we turned a corner. Boxes containing thousands of leaflets arrived, a supporter donated a car, and we bought a loudspeaker. Finally, we were able to launch a counterattack against the Liberal Democrats.
We covered the car with posters proclaiming, “I’m backing Ben Rogers” in big, bold letters and set off. I had not driven for some years (in London I travel everywhere by public transport), so it took me a few days to get used to the vehicle. Several times I stalled, and on a few occasions I changed lanes a bit too abruptly, leaving angry motorists in my wake. Clearly, this was not improving my election chances.
A very prominent Conservative politician, Ann Widdecombe, graciously came to help for a day. She is one of the few Tories who is popular with the people regardless of their party preferences. Known as a no-nonsense conviction politician, she is deeply Catholic and passionately pro-life. She addressed an evening rally, and the following day we did a walk-about in the city center, festooned with balloons and placards. Saturday morning shoppers were suddenly accosted by this celebrity, who charged up to them: “Hello. I’m Ann Widdecombe,” she boomed, as if they didn’t already know.
“I hope you’ll support Ben Rogers. A very good man.” She stood in the market square with a loudspeaker and made a short speech, and then we set off to visit a housing estate.
As we drove, Ann wound down the window and switched on the loudspeaker. Instead of using properly constructed sentences, she unleashed a barrage of words unconnected to each other: “Conservative. Vote Conservative. Positive. Rogers. Ben Rogers. May 5. Positive. Be positive. Vote Conservative.” As I approached a roundabout and changed lanes, a car behind us beeped its horn and two fingers shot up. They were not signalling victory. I wasn’t sure if their offensive gesture was because of the noise Ann was making or my driving, but I did not stop to ask. We pulled up alongside a bus at a traffic light. I thought we might give passers-by some respite, but no. “Hello, bus,” Ann said. “Be positive. Vote Conservative.”
We reached the housing estate, and Ann was off again. It was like being with a heat-seeking missile. Veering from one side of the road to the other, greeting voters as they passed by, she then settled on a house and rang the doorbell. I felt for the people inside, who were not expecting on a quiet Saturday morning to open their front door and find Ann Widdecombe there. But after they recovered from the shock, they responded warmly. At one home, people opened the upstairs window and waved. “We know you from the television. We like you,” they said.
After the Widdecombe whirlwind passed, the rest of the campaign was relatively calm. However, I did receive some entertaining hate mail. Binge drinking is a major local and national issue. Young people in towns and cities across the country are out on the streets, drunk and aggressive, and it leads to what I termed the “three V’s”—vomit, vandalism, and violence. I went out with the police on patrol on North Road in Durham one Saturday night to see for myself. Streets were covered in litter and vomit, fights broke out every few minutes, and several arrests were made. It was disgusting. So I made this a campaign focus. I distributed a newspaper with the headline: “Fight North Road binge drinking, says Ben Rogers.” A few days later a piece of paper arrived in the mail: “Fight Ben Rogers, says North Road binge drinker,” it said.
I framed it.
Election day came, and weeks of walking the streets from dawn to dusk were over. My campaign team—both of them—got up before sunrise to do a “dawn raid,” distributing final leaflets to target areas. I overslept, the result of exhaustion. Then we toured the polling stations, smiled at voters, thanked the election officials, and retired to eat banoffee pie and wait for the polls to close. At 10 P.M., when the polling stations closed, I arrived at the count with my parents, girlfriend, campaign manager, and about 18 of my supporters.
For hours we watched as the votes were counted by hand. The Labour and Liberal Democrat votes piled up. For a while I wondered if my 18 supporters in the room were my only voters. The fourth candidate in the race, known as the “Durham Cobbler,” was indeed a local cobbler standing as the “Veritas” candidate. A slimy Liberal Democrat tried to rile me at one stage by suggesting that the cobbler might overtake me.
In the end, although I did not do well, votes went in unlikely directions. I know some traditional Labour and Liberal Democrat voters opted for me because of my pro-life and international justice platform. But many Conservatives were persuaded to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats, in order to oust Labour—a phenomenon repeated across the northeast. They bought into the Liberal Democrat message that the only way of giving Labour a kicking would be to vote for them. My efforts to counter the Liberal Democrats’ vast machine in Durham failed.
At about 3 A.M., the result was declared—Labour held the seat, but with their majority slashed to 3,274. Labour won 47 percent of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 40 percent, and I came in at 9.4 percent, with 4,179 votes. I was neither surprised nor discouraged. I learned a great deal, had a lot of fun, spoke about the issues I care about, and am now well-positioned to fight a seat I can win in four years’ time.
As an aside, Roberta Blackman-Woods has joined the All Party Parliamentary Group for Burma, and I am meeting with her soon to discuss how we can work together for democracy and human rights in that country. There are small victories, even in defeat.