UK

Fighting The Unwinnable War: Meet The General Election Candidates Who Aren't Just In It To Win It

Long read: They're the backbone of British democracy, standing for election in seats they're never going to win. But why do people sacrifice time, energy and money against all the odds?

07/06/2017 18:33 BST | Updated 08/06/2017 14:30 BST

Malachai O’Hara isn’t one to back down from a challenge. The 37-year-old Green Party of Northern Ireland candidate will fight this election in what has historically been one of the country’s most divided and deprived constituencies: Belfast North.

But there’s a catch. O’Hara joins thousands of candidates at this election who, despite pounding pavements, folding leaflets, and typing tweets, won’t come close to being elected. Not that it matters to them. Speak to candidates fighting these unwinnable wars across the country and they’ll say much the same thing.

“There’s a righteous fire in my belly,” O’Hara says. “I really believe in what I’m doing.”

Green Party NI/Getty/HuffPost Illustration

Tackling social injustice is what gets O’Hara up in the morning. “I have been an LGBT activist since I came out at the age of 21 and then working in the LGBT sector and really understanding that thirst for equality,” he says.

“In Northern Ireland unfortunately the reality for LGBT people is that we have never had any significant progress on LGBT equality unless it’s been by the Court or by a Labour Secretary of State or by UK wide ruling. Stormont has never brought forward any piece of equality legislation.”

Frustrated by a lack of progress, O’Hara joined a Green Party fighting for an equality that as a queer man in Northern Ireland had thus far proved elusive. “They brought the first ever LGBT motion to the Assembly in 2012 and that was a motion on marriage equality,” he says. “I joined shortly after and have stood for election twice now, this is my third.”

There’s a righteous fire in my belly

But this is the first time a Green candidate is standing in a Westminster election in North Belfast, currently represented by the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, majority 5,326. It’s an area O’Hara has always known, having grown up here during the Troubles.

“As a child, I had a grille on the windows of my house, my mother found a dead body on the waste ground at the top of our street,” he says. “Part of my inspiration to be involved in politics is about transforming society in Northern Ireland and transitioning away from violence or Balkanisation. North Belfast is the place to do it.”

It’s a history which continues to produce the sort of injustices and inequalities that O’Hara is all too used to fighting against. “We still have endemic poverty and some of the most deprived areas across Northern Ireland and the entire UK,” he says.

“We have endemic issues with poor mental health and suicide. It’s a difficult and complex issue but you’ve got poverty, discrimination against minority communities, you’ve got a legacy of intergenerational trauma because of the Troubles, people on lifetime prescription drugs, limited job opportunities, underachievement.”

The status quo in Belfast hasn’t changed things for the better with the speed and urgency that O’Hara believes is needed.

“We know about the poverty and deprivation that people are experiencing, and under the incumbent MP that has not changed,” he says.

“We’re challenging the main parties on all of that.”

Yet O’Hara is honest about his prospects in a constituency which will see the two main parties, the incumbent DUP and Sinn Fein battle for a majority.

To be honest, it would be a unquantifiable shock if I was the MP for North Belfast

“To be honest, it would be a unquantifiable shock if I was the MP for North Belfast on the 9th of June,” he laughs. “That’s unlikely. This is about building profile and putting a challenge out to the traditional parties.”

Campaigning began last month from a very low base, in fact, no Green Party members had even leafleted Belfast North before. “It’s about us going out and being as persuasive as possible, knocking as many doors as possible and to say if you want to move away from the politics of the past we need to move on from those traditional parties that have survived on it,” he says.

“We’re building, this is not a flash in the pan and we’re embedding our roots for the next 10 years.”

Yet how does he motivate himself to get up and fight against all the odds? “I have very supportive friends and family who share that kind of passion as well,” O’Hara says.

“So when you are feeling a wee bit demotivated there are other people who say ‘come on, we’re going to do this’. I am an activist and a campaigner and I’m here for the long term.”

Google/Sam Rushworth/HuffPost Illustration

“Until recently I was determined I’d never be a candidate again,” Sam Rushworth says with the sort of candour he can, at last, afford to have. “So I surprised myself by agreeing to do it.”

The 33-year-old Labour candidate for Tatton, Cheshire, is relishing this election. For the past five weeks, Rushworth has thrown himself into campaigning with a style that’s sure to be the envy of colleagues in the party’s more crucial ‘target’ seats.

And he’d know. In 2015, Rushworth was number 43 on Labour’s priority list, as he fought to win Blackpool North and Cleveleys - a victory crucial for the party on the road to Number 10. In the end though, his defeat would come to tell the story of Labour’s national failure that year. 

Until recently I was determined I’d never be a candidate again...

“In my opinion, Labour got its messaging wrong, and being in a target seat meant I was dictated to from above,” he says reflecting on the race which delivered a majority of 3,340 for his Conservative opponent. “There are things I would have done differently.”

This time round, however, Rushworth’s efforts are underpinned by a prospect at once both sobering and liberating: he’s not going to win. “You can’t say this as a candidate but, I’m not going to say I know I’m going to lose,” Rushworth hesitates.

“But I’ll put it this way, there’s never been a Labour MP for Tatton and there have been moments in the past more advantageous to having one than right now.”

Former Tatton MP George Osborne earned a healthy majority of 18,241, now the job of his newly-selected successor Esther McVey to protect. And despite murmurs of discontent among local Tories after the ex-MP was selected, McVey is on course to head back to Westminster, two years after a crushing defeat in Wirral West.

“It’s a different experience,” Rushworth says. “There’s not an expectation on me that I’m going to win the seat. There’s not much help from the party. However, I do feel that Labour should be representing people everywhere.

“There are still a lot of people in this area who do vote Labour and share our values and these people deserve to see me as their candidate putting up the best fight that I can. So I’m still working really hard.”

The experience in Blackpool continues to impact his family, debt racked up during the two-year fight is still being paid off. Rushworth, a father of four, admits the short campaign made the decision to run so much easier.

There’s not an expectation on me that I’m going to win the seat...

”It helps that I’m self employed now to have some flexibility,” he says. “It also helps that this campaign is only for a few weeks. If it wasn’t just for a few weeks there is no way I would’ve done it.

“I thought, it’s going to be over by the ninth of June, we had a discussion as a family and we all agreed that we would do this. We knew that it meant the kids won’t see me very much over the next four weeks but it’s not long enough that it really fundamentally affects your life.”

Despite the short campaign, Rushworth has been happily planning events and campaign tactics - in stark contrast to Blackpool when someone did this for him. “Because I’m the underdog people see much more like a local dad who is standing up to campaign for something that a lot of people believe in,” he says.

“I want to put Esther McVey under pressure for Tory plans to cut school funding in Cheshire.” 

I want to put Esther McVey under pressure...

And it’s an issue that’s connecting with voters even in this Tory heartland. “I’m organising a picnic in Wilmslow with local primary schools,” Rushworth adds.

“We’re going to make up banners and placards and take the kids on a short march into the town centre. It won’t be Labour-branded because I want Conservative voting parents to support us on this issue, but I do hope it puts Esther McVey under pressure.

“She has already said she will oppose it but I want to push her to make a solid promise on this issue. She’s already squirming and feeling uncomfortable. I want her to choose to either break a promise or oppose her own party.”

“Why is it worth standing in a safe seat or an ‘unwinnable’ seat if you want to call it that,” Rushworth says. “Because you can still make a difference. I think it’s going to be quite a powerful image that in the Tory heartland of Wilmslow we’re going to have children and parents marching against Conservative policy a week before the election.

“That’s what I’m trying to achieve.”

George Bowden/HuffPost Illustration

It’s just after midday as a crowd gathers outside Wakefield’s Cathedral for the launch of the Yorkshire Party’s 2017 manifesto. At the same time, just 15 miles away in Halifax, the Prime Minister is doing the same for the Conservatives.

“We had Boris Johnson here this morning,” the Yorkshire Party’s chair Lucy Brown says nonchalantly. The 29-year-old candidate for Wakefield has just arrived with a box of freshly printed manifestos, still warm to the touch from a nearby printers. The snap election took parties large and small by surprise, and the Yorkshire Party was no different.

Started in 2014 as ‘Yorkshire First’, a local challenger to Labour and the Conservatives, the thrust of the party’s message is devolution. It wants to see a Yorkshire Parliament with powers similar to those held by Stormont and Holyrood. “The whole point is to bring power closer to people,” Brown says.

”I do think we are offering an alternative to the traditional alternative to the binaries of left and right,” Brown replies when asked what her party can offer the people of Wakefield. “I can talk to candidates of all parties and find common ground.”

It’s not long before she’s greeted by an enthused local voter, keen to know more about this new alternative choice. 

Later Brown admits to finding some motivation in the fact Wakefield is at the centre of an intense marginal battle between the incumbent Labour candidate, Mary Creagh, majority 2,613, and Tory challenger Antony Calvert. 

We are offering an alternative to the traditional alternative to the binaries of left and right...

“Being in a marginal does motivate me but I’m motivated anyway,” she says. “We were proud to take a few hundred votes away from Ed Balls in Morley in 2015. It proved that we are making a difference and our voice was heard.

“People say ‘you’re letting the Tories in’, but candidates do something to lose their majorities. At the end of the day, parties do not deserve someone’s votes by right - you go out and earn it.”

“It used to be a binary between Conservative and Labour - the Lib Dems to a lesser extent - but Ukip, the Greens and other small parties in Wales and Scotland have changed the nature of the debate,” she adds.

“It’s frustrating for the main parties because they can no longer say ‘this is our territory, go away’ because they haven’t earned it.”

The main parties can no longer say 'this is our territory, go away'...

The party is keen to reflect the diversity of God’s Own Country too. The average age of its 21 candidates at this election is 35, while 20% are openly LGBT. “It’s not just old men,” Brown says.

Yet as a representative of a relatively new party, it can be difficult to get people to take you seriously as a candidate, especially given the chances of actually winning.

“I don’t know if people think we’re doing this for fun,” she says. “The chances are slim in general elections but we’ve known from the start that we need to build up and we’ve got a few Parish councils already, we’ve got a civic mayor on our side. We’re building and we’re pragmatic. We’re in this for a while.

“People should read our manifesto. Devolution would impact everything in Yorkshire.” 

Ruth Price/Getty/HuffPost Illustration

Despite standing in a seat in which 75% of voters backed Remain, Ukip’s Ruth Price believes Hornsey and Wood Green in London needs a strong anti-EU voice.

“Ukip is in touch with the people,” she says. “We are a voice for the people, we are giving people a choice.”

The 51-year-old, who works with adults who have learning difficulties, refuses to define what result would represent a ‘successful’ election for her. “I am very excited about Ukip’s future,” she said. “I look to the long-term picture, and we are in here for the long term.”

Price was not pounding the streets of pro-EU north London alone during the campaign, as her husband Andrew, 56, is also standing for Ukip in the neighbouring constituency of Finchley and Golders Green – a seat which saw 70% of voters back Remain last year.

Ukip has stood in Finchley and Golders Green in every election since the party was formed in 1993, but even its best result in 2015 saw it pick up just 1,732 votes.

“In 2015 when we were in a very strong position we lost our deposit,” Andrew said. “If we could cut the Conservatives majority this election we would count that as a success.”

Getty/Phil Smith/HuffPost Illustration

For Lib Dem Phil Smith, the first message he wants to get across in Boston and Skegness is that he respects the result of last year’s referendum – he just wants another one.

“The message that we are giving is: ‘I wanted to remain, you wanted to leave, but now we are leaving, would you do a deal and then give someone a blank cheque?,” he says. “We would like to see what we are buying before we buy.”

While that line is prepared for delivery on the doorstep, Smith is finding that Brexit is not coming up as often as predicted, despite – or maybe, because – 75% of voters in the constituency backed Leave.

“This is a general election. Brexit is an issue and people need to know where people stand on it,” he says. “But the main things that people are talking about are the economy, health. People are concerned about their day-to-day lives.”

The Lib Dems finished fourth in the seat in 2015, picking up just 1,015 votes as they finished behind the Tories, Ukip and Labour.

Even in 2010, when the Lib Dems saw themselves pick up 23% of the vote across the country, the party only secured 15% in Boston and Skegness.

It is fair to say the Lincolnshire seat is not on the Lib Dems target list.

“I am not putting my house on winning,” he admits. “What we are out there doing is giving a point of view and a voice to people and we might be able to change the mood a little bit in Westminster.

“What would be a good result for me is our message has got across. If we get third I would be ecstatically happy.”