Campaign tales: on the doorstep with an academic candidate

Three scholars with their sights set on Westminster explain what drives them to aspire to a career in politics

April 30, 2015

Source: Eleanor Bentall

Tim Valentine is professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is standing as the Green Party candidate for Faversham and Mid Kent

“The Green Party has never retained its deposit when standing for Parliament in Kent – we want to change that.”

As the Greens’ parliamentary candidate in the rock-solid Tory seat of Faversham and Mid Kent, Tim Valentine has modest hopes for next week’s general election.

Winning the 5 per cent of the vote needed to hang on to his £500 deposit would be a massive achievement for the professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is one of a handful of academics standing in this year’s general election, mostly in unwinnable seats.

“I saw the bookies had the Conservative candidate here as 100/1-on to take the seat,” says Valentine, who notes that his own odds to overturn the Tories’ 17,088-vote majority and win the seat aren’t even listed.

However, as he canvasses potential voters in Faversham market on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, there is no sign that Valentine is disheartened by his slim hopes of becoming an MP.

Here, well-heeled Londoners weekending at their second homes peruse antiques stalls. The town’s most famous resident, Bob Geldof, strolls past unhurried as local townsfolk flit between the independent high street stores.

Outside the town’s 16th-century guildhall, a reminder of Faversham’s illustrious past when Henry VIII moored his fleet in its now silted-up harbour, Valentine stops shoppers young and old to ask how they will vote.

“You’re saying we don’t need an army,” says a Faversham resident who is unimpressed by the Greens’ plans to scrap the Trident nuclear weapons programme and shrink the UK’s armed services to a small-scale “home defence force”.

“If we don’t stand up to Putin, who will?” he adds, as Valentine valiantly tries to engage him on other issues, such as the need to crack down on tax avoidance and to support the NHS.

Approached by a painter and decorator working on a nearby derelict store who wishes to discuss support for small businesses, Valentine extols at length the merits of paying a £10 minimum wage.

In fact, the tradesman wants the current £6.50 rate reduced, as he says he can hardly afford to pay it to casual labourers. Valentine will not budge on the topic, arguing that firms will retain skilled staff if they pay them better.

Does Valentine find the switch from academia to electioneering difficult? In his specialist field of facial recognition studies, he is an esteemed international authority who has advised the FBI and the Metropolitan Police on identification issues.

Appointed a professor aged just 36, he has also acted as an expert witness in several high-profile cases of disputed identity, including the appeals of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and of Barry George, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando.

But that means nothing on the streets of Faversham, whose inhabitants see him as just another local politician asking for their vote. As a Green in deepest Tory Kent, the knock-backs far outweigh the positive responses.

Does that bother Valentine as someone whose opinion, at least professionally, is normally in demand?

“I’ve been an environmental campaigner for a long time, so I’m used to speaking to people – some support you, some don’t,” he says.

“If someone is upset at what you’ve said, I know it’s unlikely you’re going to change their mind in one go, but you might leave one idea with them.”

Being the only local candidate is one way that Valentine believes he can improve on the 2 per cent of votes (890 in total) that he gained when he stood in 2010.

With Sir Hugh Robertson, the popular former Olympics minister, vacating the seat after 14 years, McKinsey management consultant Helen Whately has been parachuted in to the constituency by the Conservatives.

Labour has drafted in Michael Desmond, a councillor from Hackney in London, and the Liberal Democrats are represented by David Naghi, a councillor from Maidstone, which is a 30-minute drive west of the constituency. The Ukip candidate, Peter Edwards-Daem, lives near Maidstone.

On local issues – from the state of double yellow lines in the market to potential plans to dredge the harbour and revive the boat-building industry – Valentine does well with voters.

“I don’t drive, so I’m not happy they’ve moved the outpatient services in Faversham to Whitstable recently,” says Muriel Buck, 77, who says she always votes Green.

With Green Party membership in Kent quadrupling in the past year to 1,300 – a rise thought to be attributable partly to its opposition to fracking – Valentine believes he can do better than before.

“Until a few months ago we had only 30 members in Faversham – we now have 130,” he says.

Today, a team of about 20 party activists gathered in The Market Inn are primed to knock on doors and deliver flyers. Valentine’s wife, Viv Moore, who is also a psychology academic at Goldsmiths, is advising them on how to get leaflets through odd-shaped letterboxes.

A number of green-painted spatulas are distributed to help the party faithful accomplish this tricky task.

“Some letterboxes are surprisingly spring-loaded,” explains volunteer Gavin McGregor, who says it is easy to get fingers trapped while distributing party literature.

But he believes that it is worth the effort: there are votes to be won.

“Faversham is Tory, but it’s quite quirky,” says McGregor. He thinks that the Greens’ support for the town’s numerous independent shops will chime with some Conservative voters.

While Valentine’s supporters knock on doors in target streets in Faversham, he works the town centre.

Outside Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewer and Faversham’s largest employer, he explains how academia has played a big part in his conversion from Labour supporter to Green candidate.

While working at Durham University in the early 1990s, he became involved in a campaign to stop the burning of hazardous waste at a cement kiln near his home in Weardale.

He eventually bought shares in the company behind the scheme so that he could speak at its annual general meeting.

“I discovered that owning shares opens a few doors and helps to influence decision-making,” he says – a principle he has attempted to apply to the UK higher education sector’s main pension fund, the £48 billion Universities Superannuation Scheme, which covers about 300,000 university staff.

As a leading figure in ShareAction, a charity that “promotes responsible investment by pension funds” and has campaigned for the USS to divest itself of its fossil fuel assets, Valentine has been active in promoting green issues to his academic colleagues.

“We know we need to keep most of the world’s oil and gas in the ground if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, but the USS is heavily invested in Shell.

“Shell’s entire business model is based on extracting large amounts of these reserves, so its success is contingent on damaging the environment,” he says, adding that academics’ views on this issue must be heard.

Valentine has been stepping up his campaigning in Faversham as the election approaches. He is “working a lot of evenings and weekends” in addition to his university commitments, he explains.

He won’t win, but he believes that he can establish a platform for a future candidate to one day take the seat and establish the Green Party as a significant political force.

“It’s true blue Tory country, but if there is no Green candidate, people can’t vote for us.

“If we don’t do the groundwork now, we won’t be able to win seats when our chance finally arises.”

‘The hardest thing is finding time to get the domestic chores done’

Paula Keaveney, lecturer in public relations and politics at Edge Hill University, is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sefton Central. She answers questions about why she’s running and how she manages to accommodate academic and campaign work

Why did you choose to stand, and have you done so before?
This will be the fifth time I’ve been a Westminster parliamentary candidate, although the first time here in Sefton Central. I’m doing this to give people in Sefton Central a Liberal, progressive person to vote for.

What has the experience been like, and how has the decision changed your working life and your personal life?
Election campaigns can be very stressful. But they can also be enjoyable and rewarding. What I love is the chance to discuss issues like nuclear weapons, international development, human rights and animal welfare in a context in which views actually matter. The first question might be about Gaza and the second about dog dirt, so you need to be able to care about hyper-local issues as well as national and international ones. As I’ve been a local councillor, I find this reasonably easy. Previous experience means that I am well used to doing shedloads of political work in the time not taken up by the working day! Liberal Democrat campaigners tend to be very active, and even when visiting an area nowhere near the constituency I find myself automatically identifying issues or problems and working out how quickly I could deliver leaflets to those streets.

Tell us about the relationship you have had over your lifetime with the party you represent. Have you always been an active supporter and what are the key reasons for your support of the party today?
I joined the Social Democratic Party when it was formed. I’ve always been active and have been a councillor as well as an agent and campaign manager. I believe in liberal democracy very strongly and got involved in policy by speaking and voting at conference.

How have your university and your colleagues responded to your decision to stand?
Some colleagues are surprised – hopefully pleasantly – that I am a candidate. And I was pleasantly surprised when I was interviewed for this job that the panel viewed political involvement as a “good thing”. This had definitely not been the case with other potential (non-academic) employers.

How do you juggle campaigning with your academic work?
It’s not easy, although the timing of the Easter holiday helped. I try to make everything count twice. If I am doing something in politics, I think about whether any aspect is of potential use in teaching, and vice versa. You need to be very good at dealing with pressure coming from all sides at once.

To be honest, the hardest thing is always finding time to get the domestic chores done, and I am sure my cat Tucker (named after Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) will benefit from some guilt purchases!

Briefly, what are some key issues that you have chosen to highlight in your campaign and why?
There is a particular issue to do with the threat to the green belt. However, it’s clear that the economy, the health service, schools and transport are again high in voters’ minds. So far, no one at all has raised immigration.

Is there any relationship between your work as a university researcher and/or teacher and your political work – whether in terms of overlapping research topics or lessons learned from one role that can be applied to the other?
It helps that I teach public relations and politics as there are always great examples in political campaigns. My research interests include lobbying, and in particular the lobbying of candidates; as a candidate I have a perspective that I suspect few researchers have.

It often amazes me how academics who write about politics can fail to understand the dynamics of what goes on. I remember reading one journal article that took a very long time to declare that people moving house were less likely to vote in local elections and thinking, “I could have saved them 6,000 words.”

What would you say to people disillusioned with party politics and to those reluctant to vote?
If you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain afterwards!

Speaking to local people about your campaign, has anyone commented on your role as an academic? Have you encountered strong views on higher education?
I have had quite a few comments about how well Edge Hill University is doing these days. Oddly enough, at the time of writing, no one has yet raised higher education policy with me, although I have been lobbied on education more widely, including teachers’ workloads.

What was the result by party in your constituency in the last general election, and do you think you can win on 7 May? If so, what would happen to your academic career?
The Lib Dems came third, Labour first, the Tories second. Can I win? Of course! Will I win? Completely down to the voters. Am I going to predict anything? Absolutely not! But if I win, I hope that Edge Hill would have me back for the odd guest lecture.

People waiting at bus stop

‘I want to make a difference for ordinary people’

Kevin Hickson is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool. He is standing as the Labour Party candidate in East Yorkshire

In August 2014, I was selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the seat of East Yorkshire. Although I live in Cheshire and work in Liverpool, it is an area I know well – I have been visiting friends there for many years and was once invited to speak to the local constituency party about my writing alongside the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley.

So how does an academic end up standing in the election? As someone who has been very interested in politics from a young age, studied the subject at university and lectures in politics at the University of Liverpool, I was already “political”. However, in recent years I began to feel that if I was to make a direct difference to the lives of ordinary people, then I should be more politically active.

When I was young, I joined the Labour Party, but I left it around the time of the Iraq War, disillusioned with the Blair regime. In 2010, I took the decision to rejoin. I fully supported Ed Miliband’s candidature for the leadership, believing that we share many of the same values, particularly around the need for a more equal society. I then became a councillor, serving as the first-ever leader of Crewe Town Council and then as a unitary councillor. In these posts, I feel that I have made a difference, even if it is a small one, and I have been frequently frustrated by institutional constraints and budget cuts.

My political activity has made me rethink academia – or perhaps it has reinforced the suspicions that I already had. It has highlighted the sheer futility of several aspects of academic practice, including the constant pressure to publish in places read by few people outside the sector, and the belief that a successful academic is the one who generates the most research income. Although there has been increased emphasis on the “impact” of academic research, I think there is much further to go in increasing the relevance of academic writing to the wider public.

As an academic, a particular challenge of standing in the election is the need to communicate in two very different ways. Writing and researching a meticulously referenced journal article is a long way from producing campaign literature. Campaigning has meant writing for the local press, speaking on radio and television and in public meetings. But the skills and experience I have built up here have been useful for my academic work.

Working in a politics department, my colleagues are naturally supportive and inquisitive, especially those who specialise in elections and British politics. Our respective roles have led to some sharing of knowledge – I can offer first-hand experience of campaigning, while they have studied electoral trends.

As for my chances of success, Labour slipped from second place to third in East Yorkshire in 2010, but there is clear scope to improve on that. Perhaps the biggest unknown in this election is the impact of Ukip. Although it is likely that it will win only a very small number of seats, it may well take enough votes to affect the result in a number of seats. This, along with the decline in Liberal Democrat support and increased support for the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, makes this election the hardest to predict for 40 years, including in my constituency.

Times Higher Education also approached Matt Sleat, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield and Conservative Party candidate for Sheffield South East, and Nicholas D. Wood, principal lecturer in the School of Pharmacy and Chemistry at Kingston University and Ukip candidate for Esher and Walton, but they chose not to participate in this feature.

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