Losing an election is a deeply personal experience

by Leighton Andrews

I had many conversations with other Labour candidates in the run-up to May, and while most of us enjoy campaigning and talking to voters on the doorstep, I think we all felt that this had been a long campaign and we were keen for it to be over.

It had been a long Assembly term – the first time, of course, that the Assembly session had lasted five years rather than four. I have already said that I felt that I had been in a four-year campaign, and that is mentally wearing: it was a treadmill with only one goal in sight.

Jim Murphy wrote about the experience of losing your seat in the New Statesman in January. He said:

“One of the personal downsides of defeat as an MP is immediacy. You make a speech in the middle of the night from a packed stage in a largely empty hall. Each word is offered from behind a fixed smile as you pretend to be delighted that someone else will be leaving with the job that you arrived with.”

Wayne David, who lost the Rhondda Assembly seat in 1999, faced a much worse situation, with the verification on the night but the count delayed until next day. He knew from the verification that he was out, went home and worked out what he was going to say.

He told Matthew Engel in the Guardian subsequently ‘The body reacts in a physical way. I completely lost my appetite. I didn’t eat for four days and lost ten pounds in weight. I suppose it’s a bit like bereavement.’

My experience was different. I hadn’t expected to lose, though I thought it would be closer than before. But on the Monday before the election, when we had had some phone-canvassing results which suggested there might be more of a swing away from us, I lost a night’s sleep, but at least had the opportunity to start sketching out a concession speech if it were needed.

I knew I wanted to say something about my experience of the devolution journey of the previous twenty years since helping create the Yes for Wales campaign in 1996.

Researchers at Southampton University have identified the power of nostalgia in helping people move through difficult periods in their lives. Perhaps I was consciously doing something similar, locating my defeat in a narrative of my personal devolution experience.  Certainly it helped. I knew I needed to leave my supporters feeling strong and reinforced. I was determined to go gracefully.

The experience of losing my place in government in 2013 had given me a precedent for that. In 2013, I had thought I might be sacked a few weeks before it happened, and spent a May bank holiday in France working through my emotions. By 2016, I had already read my obituaries once. I could live with reading them again for a second time.

In my life, I have always hated uncertainty. So the brutal clarity of the election result was in one way a relief.

On the night, it helped that Plaid Cymru weren’t triumphalist, and respectful in listening to me as Rhondda Labour supporters had been in listening to Leanne.

When I first won in 2003, I paid tribute to the Plaid Cymru AM I had defeated, Geraint Davies, saying he would always have the distinction of having been the first Assembly Member for the Rhondda, and Leanne, to be fair, thanked me for my service to the Rhondda and to Wales in her speech and was subsequently also generous in her Western Mail interview about her victory.

I have since been contacted by a number of Plaid Cymru members, and also by Welsh language activists, as well of course as many, many people in my own party and in none, warmly thanking me for what I had been able to do in government and for the Rhondda.

The loss of my Assembly seat also meant my three Assembly staff lost their jobs and I had to make them redundant. Fortunately two of them have subsequently found jobs with new Labour Assembly Members.

The Assembly system for helping Members who have lost is efficient and humane. I know from other jurisdictions how defeated members had to go back into their Parliamentary offices to clear them out the weekend after the election.

In our case, the Assembly rules mean we had had to box up all our Assembly office contents before the elections, and these were brought up to our Tonypandy constituency office the Wednesday after polling. I had cleared my Ministerial office out before the election campaign, so there was no need for me to go back to the Assembly’s Cardiff Bay base. I was out of the bubble.

Election campaigns, and the run-up to them, sharpen political differences of course: and the aftermath of this election in the Assembly’s first weeks back has accentuated those dividing lines.

Election nights should bring closure, and a time for healing the sores of the campaign. With a tied vote on the First Minister’s job the week after polling, it felt like the election hadn’t really finished. That delayed the start of the healing process, but now it can begin.

 Leighton Andrews was AM for the Rhondda from 2003 until 2016 and a minister in the Welsh government from 2007 to 2013 and 2014 to 2016

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2 Responses to “Losing an election is a deeply personal experience”

  1. david walsh says:

    An interesting and human article At a local level I went through the same thing back in 2005 when I was the Leader of a largish Unitary Authority. At the time, local oppositions in our region (Tories, Lib Dems and oddball Independents) were working together on decapitation strategies for high profile seats by restricting the field on the ballot paper, and so it wasn’t a surprise.

    Mind, no one likes it, but after a week or so of kicking the metaphorical cat, I settled down. Mind, I had a satisfying job, but I know well that this isn’t always an option for MP’s MSP’s or AM’s. I have known MP’s who have lost seats and I could feel their despair at that time.

    There are always tomorrows and a few years back I got back on to my LA via a by election. But I know that this isn’t easily open to MP’s and devolved authority members either.

    My own view is that the Commons and the Devolved Administrations should have some form of specialist support for members losing seats which should seek to see those members through the kind of experiences Leighton speaks of.

    Such a move would not please today’s anti-politics keyboard warriors, but it is needed.

  2. Tafia says:

    My own view is that the Commons and the Devolved Administrations should have some form of specialist support for members losing seats which should seek to see those members through the kind of experiences Leighton speaks of.

    To be brutally frank they should be entitled to exactly the same as any other employee that has been fored or made redundant.

    They are only on contract, renewable at every election. They aren’t some sort of superior worker.

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