Lucky losers

April 25, 1997

Huw Richards quizzes the academic losers of previous elections about what might have been..

If parallel universes exist there is probably one in which Pat Seyd rather than Tony Blair is about to become prime minister. Leadership of the Labour party was predicted for Seyd by Daily Telegraph commentator Henry Fairlie when he was 23 and Labour candidate at the Winchester by-election in 1964. In this universe he is content to be professor of politics at Sheffield University. But he and many other academics with histories as candidates may find themselves indulging in some daydreaming of the "What ifI?" variety next Thursday.

Among this election's Labour and Liberal Democrat hopefuls, academics are heavily represented - though less so among the Conservatives. Some start early, with lofty ambitions. James Curran, now professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London, fought three elections for Labour before he was 30, the last two in 1974 in Cambridge where he came within 2,000 votes of winning. Duties included a monthly soapbox session in the Market Square. "The competition for attention was pretty fierce. I was pursued around Cambridge by a group of Tory undergraduates led by a young man called Michael Portillo. I'm not surprised he has done so well. He was an excellent heckler. Although when they ran out of things to shout they used to chant 'Trinity, Trinity' as it was where I'd been and it was regarded as a posh college."

Peter Knight, vice chancellor of the University of Central England, carried Labour's flag in Bodmin in October 1974 as the Liberals and Conservatives fought a battle settled by only eight votes. "My job was to save my deposit, which I did. I remember canvassing Polperro, where I kept on meeting people who said they were right behind Harold Wilson. When asked if they were voting for me, they explained that they lived in Wigan. My agent reckoned that when the ballot box from Polperro was opened, there wasn't a single Labour vote."

Nothing Knight has done since seems quite so formidable as his experience of addressing a National Farmers' Union public meeting in Liskeard Town Hall. "The Labour manifesto wasn't very forthcoming on the minutiae of pig farming, and I did not know one end of a bullock from the other. One character asked if Labour's policy of abolishing tied cottages applied to Number 10 Downing Street and, when all his friends laughed, came up on stage and took a bow".

So why did they opt for academic life over politics? Curran remembers: "I realised that I was a lousy politician. I can't think of any part of the job I did well. I wasn't good at speaking, or kissing babies and I didn't particularly like people shouting at me. I realised that I would much rather be an academic, a privileged life with considerable security and the opportunity to do what interests you."

Even in the face of less media scrutiny in 1964 Seyd realised that "you were expected to be 110 per cent squeaky clean and at the age of 23 I didn't really want that degree of control and restraint on my life". But candidacy left a lasting mark. "All my work since has been influenced by what were, in effect, weeks of intensive fieldwork, given the chance to knock on people's doors and ask about their political views. If you do that as a candidate people will engage with you, even if they are sometimes pretty aggressive about it, and you learn that people form views for often extraordinary reasons that no opinion poll will ever tell you. I love elections, not the one that takes place on television and at party headquarters, but on the doorsteps."

Alan Butt Phillip, now professor of social policy at Bath University, actually became an academic in order to have a political career. Already armed with an Oxford PhD, he took a post at Bath when his employers warned him, after two spells of leave to fight Wells for the Liberal Democrats in the 1974 elections, that he would have to choose between his job and politics. "Academics had more room for manoeuvre in the 1970s - it must be terribly difficult today," says Phillip. He fought Wells five times, putting his party firmly into second place. "Candidates have a finite shelf-life and I decided that by 1987 I had reached the end of mine. As the seat became more winnable, so the demands on me as candidate grew. I decided that it was time to develop my academic career and see more of my family."

Similar pressures afflicted Peter Stead, a historian at the University of Wales, Swansea as candidate for his home town of Barry in 1979. "I was travelling back and forth three nights a week - and there'd always be someone upset that you weren't there on the fourth night. It was very expensive, and I did not receive expenses."

But he enjoyed the experience. He had previously been warm-up speaker for the Labour candidate in Gower. He learnt not to defy Welsh prohibitions on canvassing on Sundays. "After much debate we went out on one Sunday. As we approached the first house I knocked over their milk bottles, smashing them. The people came out when they heard the noise and, wearing my red rosette, I said, 'Good morning, I'm here representing your Conservative candidate'. Everyone laughed."

Stead believes he would have overturned a Conservative majority of 4,000 if Jim Callaghan had gone to the polls in October 1978. He still thought he would win in 1979. "As a candidate you are out every evening and don't see much of what is happening nationally so I didn't realise the impact Mrs Thatcher was having." Looking back, he believes that losing spared him a career in impotent opposition. "But every time there is an election I'd love to be a candidate again."

Wistfulness gives way to frustration for those like Queen Mary and Westfield historian Sarah Palmer, Labour candidate in Weston-super-Mare in 1970 and Bristol North West in 1983, and Peter Lewis, lecturer in English at Loughborough, who sought seats this time - and failed. Palmer hopes to return to local politics - after eight years on Kent County Council she gave up to be head of department at QMW. Lewis, 55, who fought Chesterfield for the Tories in 1992, wonders if his chance will ever come again: "I loved wearing a rosette, I'm a dreadful showoff", he admits.

Recognition that, however maligned, successful politicians are remarkable people, is readily forthcoming. Curran says: "They aren't necessarily cleverer than those who don't make it. But they do have immense energy and tenacity." Seyd speaks with feeling of the five-yearly ordeal of scrutiny by the electorate. They speak of the benefits of talking to people from the widest possible range of circumstances. "There can be no better way of learning how to hold an audience", argues Curran. And even among those who would never think of running again, none regrets the energy spent on their attempts to enter Parliament. Of how many ultimately unsuccessful quests, in academic or any other life, can that be said?

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