How to Lose an Election (Well)

After missing out on a seat on Westminster City Council in this May’s local elections, David Parton shares his advice about coping with electoral defeat. 

Am I a loser?

That was the question I asked myself as I took a long, hard look in the mirror in the early afternoon of Friday 6 May.

Well, I’d just stood for election to Westminster City Council, and lost out by 73 votes, so by most metrics that does make me a loser.

This is especially true when compared to the prevailing wind across the city, where Labour gained 12 council seats and took control of the council for the first time ever.

In fact, I took the unedifying title of being Labour’s biggest loser in Westminster, securing the highest number of votes across the city for any Labour candidate that ultimately wasn’t elected.

That’s tough and hard to deal with, but I know I’m not the only one who will have experienced this recently. I’m not even the only person that came close like this within Westminster. It is the nature of the beast.

In fact, I googled ‘how to deal with losing an election’ about a week before polling day, to responsibly prepare myself for this entirely plausible (dare I say, likely) outcome, and found a mixed bag. While election defeat is an essential component in a liberal democracy, the resources I found available were not that spectacular.

However, one piece did lay out what might seem obvious, but could probably do with being restated.

There is only so much any one candidate can do, and only so much any one candidate can change in a campaign - especially at the local level. Accepting this seemingly obvious truth has helped me come to terms with the initial sense of shock, shame and embarrassment at not being elected.

Some of these factors include when you were selected as a candidate, who your other candidates are, whether existing councillors are running again, how much of a priority your ward is to the local party, and where your name appears on the ballot.

Again it might sound obvious, but if elections were entirely meritocratic exercises, Boris Johnson would not be our prime minister.

That’s not to say we can coast through elections with no hard work. Surely that can only get you so far. But there is value in accepting what we couldn’t control this time, and learning from it to help manage those factors better next time, to stop them from getting in the way of success.

So coming to terms with what you couldn’t control, especially if you feel you did all you could and are proud of your effort, can help. It’s definitely helped me find peace with a result that was hard to not take personally. After all, it’s your name on the ballot.

The Google search did also yield other advice.

Some pieces included advice to take time to immediately recover from the end of what will have been a stressful experience and make space to relax and recalibrate. Self-care can help ease the immediate emotional response to defeat and allow a longer process of recovery.

And for me, this longer process had to involve stopping and thinking: ‘so now what?’

Which led me to the final insight the search yielded: to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and carry on. Resilience, even in the face of something that can seem unfair, determines how far someone can go after such an initial setback. And while it can be hard to swallow your pride and keep faith, it is surely better to learn from the setback experience and keep going, rather than be defined by it.

The piece highlighted the numerous other avenues for political activity still available even if the local government route is closed off this time. Whether that’s CLP organising, broader engagement with other Labour-related societies and organisations, or community activism beyond the labour movement, including single-issue advocacy.

And so, after such an intense campaign experience, where for so long there was nothing else in my life other than Thursday 5 May, the idea of letting that energy fade away after not being elected is simply not an option for me.

What about you?

David Parton stood for election in Vincent Square ward in the Westminster City Council elections this year, and is an active member of Westminster North CLP. He can be found tweeting at @DavidParton_.

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