What is it like to administer to the dreams of an aspiring politician? An anonymous campaign manager takes us inside the fight.
Being a campaign manager isn’t like The West Wing. It’s rarely glamorous. Political staffers tend to prefer The Thick of It, which captures the chaotic, frustrating, sometimes scarcely believable reality. In real life, politics is ugly, shambolic and ridiculous.
A campaign manager must be a political adviser, volunteer manager, PR maven, strategist, journalist-schmoozer and a successful conflict-mediator.
‘Dealing’ with the candidate is the key part of the job – and also one of the most trying. Politicians expect more of us than most other employers. Some of them know that there are many others eager to take your place. Others have just always been surrounded by people willing to move heaven and earth for them. They take it for granted.
When you take on running a politician’s campaign, you are also taking on their quirks. I had a candidate once who dreamt that I had forgotten to submit their nomination papers – the papers that put their name on the ballot paper – and so, worried it was some kind of supernatural premonition, they forced me to make me double-check all the paperwork.
Another candidate rang me when I had one foot out the door to go to a New Year’s Eve party, asking me to deal with something ‘urgent’. You are generally expected to work whenever your politician is working. If your candidate is a workaholic, you become a workaholic too. My partner at the time told me I talked about canvassing in my sleep.
Seeing politicians off-camera is a revelation. One of my most polished candidates came off a TV debate stage so desperate for a cigarette that they walked outside, picked a dog-end up off the ground and stuffed it in their mouth, lighting up just out of view of every TV camera in the city.
Campaign managers who are too in awe of their politicians will fail. Some candidates refuse to be wrong. I worked with one individual who was a brilliant but very difficult person, and who would fight you for hours over a decision she disagreed with. Dealing with a politician, which requires the right mix of coercion and persuasion, is a lot like dealing with a young child.
Sometimes the relationship breaks down altogether. One of my colleagues had such a horrific time with her candidate that when she walked into the polling booth on election day, she voted for someone else.
To get a candidate elected you will need volunteers. Hundreds of them. And if you’re lucky, other staff too. In volunteer-led organisations, there are saints – ordinary people with noble intentions who give up their spare time to put in the hard work of knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, doing everything that needs to be done. I’ll never forget Grace, the 94-year-old volunteer who, fit as a fiddle, gave all of her energy to one of our campaigns. She said she’d been doing it all her life, because it was what she believed in. These people make democracy work.
But the difficult volunteers will astound you with their behaviour. Organisations that depend on unpaid labour can’t afford to have strict boundaries for personal conduct. Political parties often have executive committees made up of volunteers who lord it over the staff because, simply put, volunteers are invaluable for getting things done. In our party, a consistently abusive volunteer had to be banned from speaking to the staff. They kept their position.
Infighting was the most soul-destroying aspect of the job. You never really ‘meet’ your opponents, so you make enemies of your own side. Staff members hold the campaign to ransom by threatening to resign, knowing that getting rid of them would cause huge disruption near election day. I had one very difficult staff member walk out just before polling day. The aftermath was chaos. Another staffer, a press officer, screamed at a floating voter down the phone for asking legitimate policy questions. I couldn’t discipline the press officer because I needed him until polling day – even if he was underperforming. I met people so manipulative, abusive or self-serving, so determined to advance themselves by any means necessary, that I began to question not just my party but the goodness of humankind.
The stress can be devastating. You will carry the blame, unspoken or not, if the campaign fails. I once worked for an MP with a wafer-thin majority. Our internal polling had us suffering a crushing defeat. I knew if that happened, I would be blamed, and I would always be the person who lost that MP’s seat. I would lose my job and I would lose my reputation. Would it ever recover? Would anyone employ me again? You’re only as good as your last election campaign.
Except, that time we won. No feeling in the world is like the feeling of winning: an amazing, addictive high. We had known we had won for hours. (A little secret of British politics: with ballot counting being so transparent, you know whether you’ve won or lost long before they announce.)
The kudos, praise and job satisfaction that come with victory can be incredibly powerful. What’s more, the successful candidate’s glory rubs off on you. For a brief while, in a small circle, you are almost as much of a celebrity as them. Other politicians seek you out for next time.
Nothing can take away the satisfaction of those victories – especially when you see the people you elected go on to do something amazing. Even though you’ve stopped working for them, they’re still fighting for what you believed in – and you helped put them there.
It’s easy to get completely consumed in this world. I was deeply immersed. The long hours and the tendency to socialise with other volunteers and staff makes the job hard to escape. All my friends were in the party. A lot of my relationships over the years have been with people in the party. The fire of an election forges iron friendships. I’m still in touch, and feel very fond of, many of the people I worked with. It’s hard to explain what you’ve been through to people who haven’t worked on election campaigns. You are drawn to those who can relate.
A few years ago, the party didn’t renew my contract at short notice, leaving me without a source of income. They acknowledged my track record of success – but there were no major elections coming up and they had to save money. When a snap General Election was called a few months after I left, I got to enjoy the frantic calls asking if I’d come back. I didn’t return, because by then I’d found a job outside party politics, the first permanent contract I’d had in my life.
But the whole incident – fired to cut costs, headhunted back a few months later – showed what terrible employers our political parties are. Their human resources departments are underfunded, money is short and insecure working conditions reign supreme. Because their fortunes wax and wane, many of us are on precarious contracts tied to election outcomes. Some of us work for parties that loudly decry poor working conditions but treat their employees badly.
During the snap election of 2019, it felt strange to be just another civilian. I was door-knocked as a voter for the first time – an experience I found deeply weird. I voted at a polling station for the first time in who knows how long. And even though I gave years of my life to the party, I didn’t vote for them.