This time nine years ago, I was knocking on doors across west London, getting out the vote in the London Mayoral and London Assembly elections – for the first (and only) time as a candidate in these elections myself.
I stood for the Labour Party as a Londonwide candidate for the Assembly. As the former chair of London Young Labour, then the largest political youth group in the country, I had been used to pounding pavements across the country in support of local and parliamentary candidates, but asking people to vote for me was quite a different experience.
To start with, the majority of Londoners aren’t entirely clear on what the London Assembly actually does. The Assembly is a 25-strong body of elected politicians whose job it is to hold the Mayor to account, through regular Mayoral Question Times and through a series of committees and investigations. The Assembly focuses on issues where powers are devolved to the Mayor, so Assembly Members (AMs) spend most of their time discussing housing, transport, the environment, policing and fire and health. After six months of campaigning, I had managed to get that down to thirty seconds for a doorstep conversation, although I’m not sure how many Londoners I convinced of the importance of the role.
The complex two-tier voting system was also a headache on the doorstep. The city is divided into fourteen constituencies, each represented by an AM, plus a further eleven AMs elected on a Londonwide list. The purpose of the top-up list is to ensure representation for smaller parties, but as a list member I spent a lot of my time explaining that my name wasn’t actually going to be on a ballot paper, and that I was asking people to vote Labour on three separate sheets – for the Mayor, the constituency candidate and the Londonwide list.
Fortunately for me, as the last candidate on the list I knew my chance of actually winning a seat was extraordinarily low, and so could focus on getting out the vote and helping our mayoral campaign and constituency candidates. Less fortunately, just after I was announced as a candidate, then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson made some remarks about the Irish community in London that could most charitably be described as ill-judged. As an Irish national, and conscious of the need to get the significant Irish-born and second-generation population to the polls, I was promptly dispatched on a media round to make sure that every Irish person in London knew just what the Tory candidate had said. My appearance on RTÉ’s flagship morning current affairs programme may not be the most memorable, but at least my grandparents were impressed.
My experience as a candidate gave me a renewed appreciation for the work that politicians in devolved administrations do. While London Assembly members may be lower-profile than Westminster politicians and less-recognised locally than ward councillors, over the years since my brief brush with candidacy I have watched those elected that day take on some of London’s biggest challenges, from campaigning for clean air and green spaces, to planning for new homes and new communities, to fighting for justice for Grenfell survivors. I’ve already cast my vote by post, but will be wishing all of the candidates today the very best of luck (and hopefully some good weather!)