To the interested observer, Scotland’s general election results had them reaching for the thesaurus. “Remarkable” didn’t cut it at all. “Unprecedented” is factually correct, yet somehow didn’t adequately express the magnitude of what happened. “Earth-shattering”? Well, now we’re getting close.
But behind TV shots of cheering, jeering Nationalists and glum Labour runners-up, of bar charts and graphics gleefully depicting the triumph of Nicola Sturgeon’s party, we on the losing side have to pick up the pieces. Not of our party, but of our families.
Politicians (or ex-politicians) don’t expect public sympathy for our plight. Which is just as well. Nevertheless, when you’re standing on a platform in front of an audience of hundreds of people who seem genuinely to hate not just your party but you personally, and when you know you must applaud graciously your successor as MP to show the world what a good loser you are, your priorities change.
Three years into my stint as an MP in the southside of Glasgow, my wife and I started our family. That was a tough time, particularly for Carolyn who, for most of the week, was essentially a single parent. Things got worse when I was appointed a minister by Tony Blair. Weekend commitments, foreign travel, red boxes on the dining room table most weekends – and all of that was on top of the constituency work. Frustrated, upset constituents rightly demand the time and attention of their MP as a matter of urgency. And they got it, at the expense of time with my family.
Aside from the work, there was the intrusion into our lives by the media. Most kids don’t, thankfully, have to read about their parents’ latest public gaffes or indiscreet comments in the newspapers or on the internet. And lots of workers are given iPads by their employers without it becoming a faux scandal for the tabloids.
Yes, this is the life we choose (or chose) to lead. But our children didn’t choose it.
Of course, there are perks. How many children grow up with a familiarity with the interior of the Palace of Westminster? Or get to chase pigeons round the Terrace of the House of Commons on a hot summer day during the school holidays?
And whatever the cynicism of the public, it’s a huge advantage – and a privilege – to be able to employ your wife (or husband) – someone you trust more than anyone else on earth, someone on whom you can rely far more than anyone else, and who will put up with all the press intrusion and unsocial hours that other members of staff wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, tolerate.
So the stakes at the 2015 general election were particularly high for the family Harris.
And we lost.
It’s clear now that when the polls in Scotland took a nosedive in the aftermath of the referendum, the writing was on the wall for me and my party. But there’s a small, indistinguishable spark of optimism in every politician that allows us to continue functioning even in the darkest times. If I’d fully believed the unremittingly awful message of the polls, I would never have been able to get out of bed each morning of the campaign. So instead I kept telling myself – and my campaign team – that somehow, every pollster had got it wrong.
That belief was borne out by our doorstep canvassing. Hard though it might be to believe now, but the 28 per cent swing against me in Glasgow South was not evident in our returns. A swing away from us, yes. But a losing swing? Unlikely, we laughed, nervously…
And it was encouraging every day to meet constituents, many of whom I’d helped at some point in the last 14 years, people whose benefits I had got reinstated after they were unfairly sanctioned, people whose family members I’d managed to get into the country after a visa problem manifested itself, men and women who had declared themselves happy with my response on some policy issue or another.
And each day we would look at our canvass returns and then at the polls and we would scratch our heads, increasingly worried.
Carolyn and I tried to present a confident face to the boys, but inevitably they picked up on the growing tension as polling day loomed. Would Dad lose the election? Did that mean we would both be out of a job? And would that mean we’d lose the house and have to move away from their friends?
We were honest with them. Yes, I might lose, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I had had a job outside politics before I was an MP, I’d get another one if I had to. No need to worry…
And now it’s happened. The Westminster bubble has well and truly burst, at least for me and my family.
It was fun (mostly) while it lasted. I wish Scottish Labour well as it tries to rebuild. But for me, my only priority is the people who didn’t turn their backs on me, who stuck by me in the most difficult times.
Hi, folks – Daddy’s home!
This article was originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail