A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

Work In Progress

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A few days ago, I announced that I intend to stand for Parliament next May. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of really great feedback (thank you all!), suggestions, and questions. Lots of questions have been about the process of standing, and about how complex it is.

The entertaining thing is that I’ve had to answer most these with an “I don’t know”, as I really don’t at this stage. Really all I’ve got so far is an intent, a lack of self-control, and am comfortable with the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing.

I have no idea what I'm doing

However, my campaign is all about openness, so I’m going to blog the whole thing as I go along and learn what’s what. Watch this space, and I’ll walk you through the entire process, and maybe remove some of the fear so that you can do it too. I’ll also try to distill the knowledge into a guide of some sort as I go along - more on that later.

Here goes, anyway. Here’s what’s happened up until now.

Making the decision

Step one in all this is perhaps the biggest. However, all you need is a desire to make the world better, to have the realisation that democracy needs people to stand up for what they believe in, and that if nobody else will do it, you’d better take it on yourself.

You should have some idea what you want to stand for at this point, but I don’t think it has to be final and polished. The joy of the OpenPolitics Manifesto is that it will keep being refined and improved right up until the election (and beyond). It’s essential to expose your ideas to some criticism and discussion though; it’s a great way to refine them, and they will be challenged later.

A few people have asked why I’m standing in Horsham, which will be a hard fight. Honestly, it never occurred to stand anywhere other than where I live - why would anyone vote for me if I have no connection with the area? The parachuting-in of candidates is one broken aspect of our system if you ask me. Anyway…

Talking about it

The first person I discussed it with was, of course, my wife Amanda, who would probably much rather I kept to myself, but knows me too well to expect me to. If this is something you’re going to do, you’ve got to have your family on board. I’ve made a promise to her that I’ll try to keep the time spent under control, and if this starts to have an effect on the time I spend with my children, then I’ll stop. They come first. Obviously this will be hardest in the immediate run-up to the election, but it’s the right aim to have.

Once she was on board, I told my bosses at the ODI, and a few close friends with interests in the area. All the feedback was very positive, which was really great. Your extended networks will be a massive source of power and support, and far from getting the expected “why the hell would you do that” response, I’ve had a massive outpouring of support, respect, and admiration for doing it. Win.

Checking the law

So, time to tell the world.

Hmm; perhaps I’d better check it’s legal first.

I spent a bit of time looking at the Electoral Commission website, which looks nice but leads you in circles a bit, and doesn’t currently have guidance for people standing in UK parliamentary elections in 2015. Obviously I’m a bit ahead of the game here.

Cobbling together information from byelection guidance, and other sources, it seems fairly simple. There are spending limits on election campaigning while you’re a candidate, and some other rules, but the actual time you are an official candidate is quite short. There is something about a “long campaign” and a “short campaign” in there, but the rules only seem to apply once certain dates are passed. The long campaign starts in mid-December, so I’m basically ignoring it for now. As far as I can tell, that’s the only point that accounts and things have to be kept, though I am going to start keeping track of costs etc. now (in public of course).

So, there’s nothing stopping you announcing an intention. When it comes to actually registering, you have to submit nomination papers with 10 signatures from your constituency, and a £500 deposit. The deadline is really quite close to the election itself though, so that’s a long way off.

You get your deposit back if you gain 5% of the votes cast; in Horsham I think that’s about 2800 based on the numbers at the last election. I intend to find a way to crowdfund that deposit, btw; not because I can’t afford it, but to show others who can’t that it’s not a barrier to participation.

Time to announce

So, I think it’s legal to do what I’m trying to do. I love working in the open, so I guess it’s time to tell people! I wrote a blog post, but then realised that people might want to express an interest, so cobbled together a landing page at openhorsham.org.uk (which has since been replaced by horsham.somethingnew.org.uk.

There’s a mailchimp mailing list, and a Facebook page; both were easy to set up, and I should be fine on the free mailchimp plan for a long time. Both will let me get in touch with people who are interested in spreading the word. I’m also trying out GoSquared to count website visitors - they promise not to share visitor data with others, so it’s privacy-friendly.

Incidentally, I chose a Facebook page rather than a group. Facebook doesn’t make it massively clear which is appropriate for what, but as this is a contact point for a thing, a page seemed more sensible.

Once that was up, I just needed to wait for the perfect time to launch…

Actually, no. There’s no perfect time. I managed to wait about 10 minutes before I got so itchy about it that I had to just go ahead and publish.

The post went up here and on medium. I chose medium because there’s no barrier to writing there, but I think people are more inclined to share their links than links to this site.

What didn’t I do?

Because I did so little before announcing, there’s a lot I haven’t done, but these are the big things that you might think you need first:

  • I didn’t assemble a team of helpers. That can come later, and they will choose themselves.
  • I didn’t change my twitter handle (@Floppy) - I am who I am, I’m not going to polish my public image.
  • I didn’t chase the media. I thought for a while that I had to, but was reminded that it wasn’t my style, so would be the wrong thing to do. They will come to me if they’re interested enough.
  • I didn’t agonise over a name for the campaign. I’ve used Open Horsham for now, but that can change later - it’s a work in progress.

What’s happened since?

Well, today I had my first conversation with a local journalist, so that strategy worked.

Next steps are to get the message spread further (especially locally), and probably organise a get-together in a Horsham pub. I also need to get more content down in the manifesto and attract more contributors there. I’ve also got to work out how far I can push the transparency - can I stream (or at least record and publish later) all the meetings and things I have with people, all the discussions? Someone suggested recording a making-of documentary as I go along. Anyone got a camera and a lot of free time?

I’m very much taking a “push it and see what breaks” approach to this project, but it’s always served me well in the past, so we’ll see what happens this time!

Tune in next time to find out what happens when I phone up the South-East Electoral Commission team and see if my assumptions are actually right… :)


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