Beginner's guide could help politicians win our hearts and minds... and hold their seats
Published 22/09/2015 | 02:30
Leaflets landing daily on hall floors decorated with colourful photos, catchy slogans and earnest promises of what the candidate will do for you. Election fever is upon us.
For seasoned politicians, this is a set piece. Up the visibility; at mass, local events, shops and in the local press and get the team out, talking to constituents, taking the temperature, making promises, sharing stories of success.
For new candidates, breaking into this field is tough. They don't have a record to speak of, are unknown to the press and inexperienced in the basics of elections. They learn on the job, the smart ones get experienced hands involved in their campaign early.
We voters choose our preferred candidates for all sorts of reasons: because we support their party or views on an issue; because they canvassed us, asked for a vote and we made a connection; because they are good local operators and a strong voice for our area.
We do not generally make our choice based on an assessment of a candidate's skills and experience against a job specification for national legislator.
We do not ask ourselves if this is the person we want to have around the decision-making table during a national crisis.
And we can be forgiven. How are we to know what skills and experience our TDs need to be effective. Do we know how they should spend their work day? Have we a checklist for assessing if the candidate in our constituency measures up?
And for TDs themselves, how do they know what to do? Do they get a handbook on taking office outlining to them the intricacies of the role, the requirements, standards and expectations? Is there intensive training for 'career changers' as they embark on this new territory?
Remember the 2011 photo of the newly elected Fine Gael TDs, taken in a ballroom of a Dublin hotel. They sat in rows like school children, big smiles all round, for their half-day induction. That's it: an overview, some motivational speeches and you're on your own. For many, ambitions to drive radical reform smoulder as energy is spent working out how to use the IT system and order stationery.
"There is no job description and little benign advice" according to Paul Flynn, a veteran UK Labour MP, and so he produced a most useful little book for parliamentary colleagues entitled How to be an MP. Lessons range from "how to legislate" and "how to ask a question", to "how to grow a shell back" and "how to stay married". Within the pages of astute advice, there are three things that Irish election hopefuls could learn, and file away for after the election.
The first is, once elected, choose a role. Election time is about promises, being elected is about getting things done. Do not waste time trying to be everything, choose your focus - what you want to be known for - and get working on it. Helpfully, Flynn has a ready prepared list with catchy titles, will it be sleaze buster (or sleaze monger), international statesman, world conscience, constituency evangelist, euro crusader, extreme wing militant, single-issue eccentric, or, a favourite, thorn in the party's flesh. Choose it, and stick to it.
Second, get the basics right. Find out the process around asking oral questions and speaking in the Dáil. "Given the description of the Prime Minister's leadership as 'uncertainty based on indecision', is it now the job of the Deputy Prime Minister to take decisions? Or has the Prime Minister not decided yet?" Now that is a good question - direct, to the point and engaging. Follow Flynn's three-part formula for questions, guaranteed to get people listening: seize the attention of the house, make a powerful point, and pose an unanswerable question. Learn how to run your office. Flynn's guide provides suggested job descriptions for the various parliamentary staff allowed for MPs, he outlines the tasks they should be expected to complete and the difference between secretary, researcher and case worker. He provides detail of the overall staffing budget for MPs, and the risks of not including taxes, levied later, when making salary offers.
And finally, learn how to play the game. A section dedicated to 'how to doughnut' shows the neck required to be a politician. For the uninitiated, the politician speaking is the hole in the doughnut, the doughnut itself is the circle of faces that surround the speaker in the television or camera frame, eagerly grasping their two minutes of fame. Getting into the doughnut is a fine art, and it pays off, constituents love a politician that is regularly pictured with the Taoiseach or similar big shot. And learn how to eat and drink in a manner appropriate to the job. Taking Denis Skinner's advice "I wouldn't drink down the mines so I don't drink at Westminster", Flynn advises colleagues to avoid alcohol while working and cautions against grazing from morning to night on sugary and salty snacks provided free at events, advising colleagues instead to take time to eat healthily in one of the many Commons restaurants, of which he provides a short guide, akin to a review.
The sage and often funny advice in Flynn's book is a reminder of the huge diversity in an elected representative's job, the myriad roles they are expected to play, and the difficulty in preparing for something so unknown.
Such a guide would be of huge use to new TDs. A useful pet project for one of our political veterans who has chosen not to contest the coming election perhaps?