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Introducing the Secret Agent

Introducing the Secret Agent

🕔30.Mar 2015

Politics isn’t just the high minded cut and thrust across the despatch box or the forensic analysis of Newsnight. As the general election unfolds before us (officially) from today, spare a thought for folk who wield the oily rag that keeps the polling engine turning over. Chamberlain Files is thrilled (I think we’ve overdone election hyperbole early, Ed.) to give you unique access to the private thoughts of one such unlikely hero. An election agent toiling in a local constituency: the Secret Agent.

You are watching TV, bleary eyed, at 2.30am on the morning after the night before. The returning officer intones the names, parties and votes cast for each candidate and announces the winner. Gathered around, a motley group of characters each sporting a rosette at least as large as their head, most looking glum while just two actually glow with grins of self-approval.

“Who’s the other smug looking character, then” you ask.” The one who isn’t the candidate?

The agent.

“Agent ? Getting ahead of themselves aren’t they. Not hiring for Have I Got News For You already, surely?”

Election agent, you plonker.

Election agents:  what’s all that about then, then? Time was when it was probably quite the most gloriously ignoble of roles in our public life. To get just a flavour of those old days look no further than Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and his description of some of the details of the celebrated Eatanswill by election.

As Pickwick reports it, Mr Perker, agent to Samuel Slumkey, grudgingly acknowledges the envied skill of his opponent’s agent in keeping voters thoroughly plied (and pliable) with beer at a lock-in while boasting of his own ingenuity in providing the ladies of the town with parasols (at 7s 6d each), thereby hoping to secure the votes of their husbands and brothers. Perker also preens himself on the tactic of marshalling a small legion of infants for his candidate to kiss.

It’s not like that anymore. With the possible exception of the last item (do candidates still kiss babies?) the role of the election agent today has turned full circle from those heady days. The one- time friend of publicans and of purveyors of knickknacks is little more than a bloodless accountant. Far from showering bottomless largesse in the form of free ale and other gifts, the modern agent is principally struck with monitoring and reporting election expenditure to the last penny within the bounds set by law – in actual fact some £8,700 plus 6p of 9p for each registered voter.

I know this because? For reasons too complicated to bother you with – essentially an overdose of public spiritedness and a touch of underemployment – I seem to have volunteered myself to be an agent in the general election. This is on behalf of a candidate with much the same motivation whose worst fear would be to have the returning officer turn with a beaming smile and congratulations at some point in the wee small hours of May 8. That’s a profoundly unlikely event, but it was the unwelcome fate of more than a handful of folk on the night of the great landslide of ’97. So we keep our fingers crossed.

I therefore have the chance to indulge an interest in politics at a down and dirty level and act as a valiant foot soldier in what all the analysts are predicting to be the most intriguing general election for many a year. It’s a chance to get democracy up on the ramps, to poke about a bit under the hood and try and work out how it all really pulls together.

However, in the interests of scientific enquiry and pursuit and (to adapt the rider they use in the movies today) to ensure that no egos are seriously injured in the course of the exercise, I prefer to draw a modest veil over the constituency where my endeavours are being applied.

It’s what you might think of as a ‘bog standard’ parliamentary issue (happily, there’s actually no such thing). A Midlands constituency of some 70,000 voters. Like the vast majority of other English constituencies, it’s unlikely to change hands at the election. But, in this election of all elections, you never know.

So, for constituency and foot soldier, no name, no pack drill. You can call me the Secret Agent.

Next despatch from the front coming soon. You must now eat this blog post. Or something.

You can find out more about the work of election agents at the Electoral Commission. 

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