What it's like to be a candidate and win – or lose – a seat in a general election

If you lose a seat my advice for the defeated is to hide for six months – every time I went to the local supermarket the local yobbos shouted ‘loser’ at me

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The Independent Online

So what is it like for an MP when an ungrateful electorate cancels their ticket to carry on riding the parliamentary gravy train? For me the final execution of my political career, performed by the Cleethorpes returning officer on the night of the general election in 1997, could not come soon enough.

I was fortunate in knowing that I was on electoral death row several years before my political execution. A combination of the Tory civil war over Europe, under John Major, and the invention of New Labour by Tony Blair had already sealed my fate – and I knew it years before the election. My own brush with the Neil Hamilton Tory sleaze scandal only added to this fatal inevitability. Death row was, therefore, far more unpleasant and painful than the public execution conducted by the mayor in Cleethorpes Town Hall. David Dimbleby relayed the event live on the BBC election night programme to a cheering nation with three simple words “Cleethorpes: Labour Gain”. After 18 continuous years as an MP I was now, aged 45, officially politically dead. 

I had previously squeaked into Westminster winning Brigg and Scunthorpe for the Tories on Margaret Thatcher's coat tails in the 1979 election. After three recounts I was the surprise unexpected Tory gain and arrived as a totally inexperienced, thoroughly unqualified, wet behind the ears, 27-year-old who thought he knew it all. But the roller-coaster ride provided by Maggie saw me successfully through the landslides of 1983 and 1987. Neil Kinnock's “tax bombshell” manifesto and his ill-judged Sheffield rally rant got me over the line again in John Major's surprise win in 1992.

General Election polls and projections: June 8

I was selected in 1976 on the day Harold Wilson resigned. I had never set foot in Scunthorpe before. My selection speech was brief and to the point. “This morning Mr Wilson was Prime Minister; however, when I got off the train here tonight he had resigned. All I've done is come here and he's gone – think what I can do to get rid of the Labour MP.”

Luck rewarded me with a bonus. The mayor of Scunthorpe was expelled from the Labour Party for being too moderate. So he stood as an independent – an early outrider for the, as yet unborn, SDP. He took over 2,000 votes off the Labour incumbent and my majority was 486.

By 1983, after local unemployment had quadrupled, on my watch, an advantageous boundary commission proposal gave me a safer constituency when my rural Brigg area was attached to part of the Louth constituency. So I went upmarket to become MP for the relatively safer seat of Brigg and Cleethorpes.

For the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections the campaigns as an incumbent were gruesome experiences to be got through. The longer an MP is around the more they may offend. You can't solve everyone's problems and those you do don't always thank you. My aim was to get away with as little campaigning as possible. I prayed for rain and skived as if I were back at school. I was scarred forever following an incident during one campaign when I spotted about 20 vehicles outside a fancy house in a safe Tory ward in Cleethorpes. I bounded up to the back door, which was open, to a kitchen full of happy boozers. “This looks a fun party” I breezed in wearing my rosette proffering leaflets with all my usual candidate smarm. “No it's a wake”, replied the distraught widow. I probably lost 50 votes at a stroke.

In my first election I had nothing to lose. I wasn't an MP before, and if I lost would simply carry on as before. But an incumbent has a job to lose. Their task is to get through six weeks unscathed in the hope that nothing, locally or nationally, happens. This never works – as the Tories are witnessing this time. Elections rarely operate on cruise control. If the tide is flowing against an incumbent's party – as was supposed to happen for Labour this time – there is little hope of avoiding defeat.

But there are exceptions. Outstanding incumbents who represent “marginal” swing seats will have probably have reconciled themselves to the possibility of defeat. Some, however, like Labour’s Ben Bradshaw in Exeter, may yet again defy political gravity. His local reputation as an outstanding MP and his assurances that a vote for him will return a devoted constituency MP at no risk of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister could, once again, save him. But the reduced Tory lead might now persuade voters not to take such a risk.

For those who lose, courtesy and generosity to the winner at the count is paramount. The concession speech must be prepared and the tears and tantrums saved until safely home with a large bottle of whisky. Even the likes of Dennis Skinner (no – he won't lose, but it's fun to imagine it) should prepare for the worst and have that concession speech written – even if never has to be delivered.

My advice for the defeated is to hide for six months – every time I went to the local supermarket the local yobbos shouted “loser” at me. Don't speak to the media – all they'll want is a story about whether you've signed on. Get rid of the fancy car,  dumb down all unnecessary expenditure and try and avoid being described, as I was, in any of the “where are they now?” news stories six weeks later as “the most unemployable of the recently defeated MPs”.  

And for the surprised winner? Look at the sad face of the opponent you've just defeated and remember that this will be your fate in five, 10, or – if you're lucky like me – 18 years time.                                

Michael Brown was Conservative MP for Brigg and Scunthorpe (1979-83) and Brigg and Cleethorpes (1983-1997)  

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