When you think of a British election night, one image comes to mind. In a slightly down-at-heel village hall at four in the morning, a row of exhausted-looking candidates is on stage, wearing rosettes and grim “Be happy for the winner” expressions. The returning officer stands at the microphone, blustering through a statement involving a lot of long numbers. The 30 or so people in the hall cheer, and then the camera cuts away to another count.
Most of us will only ever encounter the losing candidates as scenery in this brief tableau, but each has worked for months, even years, in order to stand on that stage. It might go unseen by most of us, but all of this costs money. Who should pay for the leaflets, rosettes and all the rest?
Although there is some party funding available – how much can vary wildly according to the party and seat in question – mostly it is the candidate who has to stump up the cash. Research by the ConservativeHome website in 2006, conducted among Tory candidates, found that the average cost of fighting a seat then was £42,000. Robert Halfon, who stood unsuccessfully in Harlow in Essex in 2001 and 2005 before being elected as the MP in 2010, wrote that standing as a candidate had cost him “well over £30,000” and at one stage had put him in “serious debt”. Suzy Stride, who is running against him as the Labour candidate in the 2015 election, told me that her campaign has cost her “into the thousands; it’s hard to tell . . . maybe over £30k”.
As well as the obvious costs of travel and accommodation, or even relocation, if you aren’t originally from the constituency, the little things just keep mounting up. “It’s the campaign incidentals,” Stride says. “You always find yourself spending £50 here or there, because the buck stops with me.” In the ConservativeHome research, several candidates cited the cost of attending local association events and having to buy raffle tickets or pay for childcare to do so.
Lee Sherriff, a single mum-of-three who is standing for Labour in Carlisle, echoes this. “Your petrol consumption really goes up,” she says. “And when you’re out doing six hours of door-knocking in a day and then your kids ask, ‘What’s for tea?’ you find yourself saying, ‘We’ll just have to order a takeaway’ far more often . . . I’ve literally worn through the heels on a pair of boots that I need to take in to get mended, because the soles and heels are flapping off.”
Getting selected as a candidate in the first place can leave you substantially out of pocket. If selected well in advance of the election (Sherriff was picked two and a half years ago) it can come to dominate every aspect of your financial planning. “Obviously it’s a lot easier for someone who’s got a lot of financial backing, or has a lot of money themselves,” Sherriff says. “If I didn’t have my mum and dad there and they weren’t comfortable enough to help me out, then it would have been a hell of a lot more of a struggle for me.”
Without financial help, attracting people from working-class backgrounds like Sherriff’s will remain difficult. Halfon made the connection between cost and the lack of diversity in politics back in 2006, saying that “the real barrier to good, diverse candidates coming forward is not always discrimination . . . The problem is the financial burden.” He proposed a bursary scheme for candidates on lower incomes and regional funds to reflect varying local costs.
Nine years on, the problem remains. If you want to stand on the stage on election night wearing a rosette, you’ll have to buy it yourself.