When you’re pipped to the post…

Student Life

“History will be kind to me” Churchill is reported to have said, “because I will write it”. His joke is a reworking of the traditional view that history is written by (and about) the victors. This is the narrative of democracy: the winner becomes the centre of the story whilst the loser becomes a mere obstacle, an alternative direction not taken. It is easy to forget that a system structured on competition leaves behind it a series of Others and Almosts who do not usually get to become the story.  

Here in Oxford the democratic process colours our lives at far more levels than elsewhere: not only a national and institutional unionism, but also elected representatives covering every aspect of our experience at the level of Junior and Middle Common Room: welfare, academic affairs, men’s brunches and women’s teas – they’re all democratised. But the flip-side of this is that in every common room there is at least one person who didn’tbecome their JCR’s president, who didn’t get elected to run this society, who didn’t get chosen for that position.  

Where do they go? Do they disappear back into the crowd or into the back rows of the debating chamber? Or do they continue to stand out, furthering their dialogue with the elected winner? 

It turns out that these Other candidates are often quite difficult to find amongst the student population. Running for election doesn’t always appear to have cemented any earnest commitment to the student community. As I talked to a JCR President candidate from my college about this, he joked with a mock-nonchalance of his “brush with fame and glory”. Even OUSU candidates were reluctant to talk to The Oxford Student about their experiences. 

A man who is far more attached to the community he wished to represent is the Oxford East Liberal Democrat candidate Steve Goddard, who tutors French at a number of colleges around Oxford. Steve has been candidate here for more than ten years, standing for the 2001 and 2005 elections. He brought his party to second place in the constituency but failed, ultimately, to beat the incumbent Labour MP.  But then, in May last year, the Lib Dems suddenly found themselves riding high in the polls, Oxford East was a swing constituency and the party had invested heavily here in those most precious of resources: time, money, and garish orange leaflets: 

“I never allowed myself to assume at any point ‘right, this is it, this is in the bag’” Steve tells me when I meet him in his teaching room at St Hilda’s. “At the height of “Cleggmania”, or whatever you want to call it, I thought this… I thought the chances of winning were better than the chances of not winning. But that’s about as far as I ever went.” He is an enthusiastic and relentlessly emphatic man, who speaks very quickly, laying emphasis on all of those little qualifying phrases, on his ‘Howevers’ and ‘I thinks’ and ‘Not necessarilys’. 

I am interested to know what it is that makes someone think that, of all the members of a constituency, it is they who should represent each and every one of its constituents in parliament. “To a certain extent people think of politicians, not without reason, as being self-promoting; of necessity having a high level of self confidence. To a degree that’s true. Some of it is down to looking at MPs who are there in parliament – you know, not any specific MP – and thinking ‘I could do at least as well as that’ and if you like there’s a certain level of…” I can see him search for an alternative to ‘arrogance’. “I hope it’s not arrogance. But it’s at the very least self confidence.” For him, he explains, it was also a case of expanding his own repertoire of skills in a direction that could serve other people. 

Steve Goddard was clearly aiming to win the election and, at one point back in May, thought that he just might do it. But that isn’t always the case with candidacies. Michael Horovitz, for example, came second in the election for Professor of Poetry last year. The race was overshadowed by the controversy that dogged the previous contest between Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott, which brought it into the public eye and attracted a diverse field of candidates, most of whom had little chance of beating front runner Geoffrey Hill.

 
I met Michael soon after his nomination, at a reading he gave at the Albion Beatnik Bookshop, an independent retailer in Jericho that lines its shelves with jazz, poetry and contemporary novels. He is a slight man with the posture and physique of a Quentin Blake illustration – a spindly frame, sharp features and erratic colours glancing across his outfit. His voice is slow, much slower than the locomotion of Steve Goddard’s for example, and seems to gargle itself out – but it does so from behind a sly half smile that meets the world and its absurdities with a sort of quaint amusement. He came to the contest as the candidate of counter-culture, as a figure outside the system. When I speak to him again, I ask if he ever thought he could win.
 

“Given Geoffrey’s massive head start with nominations from heads of colleges and also his having long and justly been established in the minds of the Oxbridge academic hierarchy, I was never going to catch up – and the less so as ten others had already entered the ring. 

“But it seemed worth making a few noises from the other extremes of the poetry map, which I have always felt I represent and wanted to convey – namely that poetry is a universal birthright and just as likely to shine and thrive far from academia.” 

He initially tells me that “the run-up to the election didn’t particularly distract me from continuing poetry writing and other projects” but later corrects himself and explains that “having my hat in the ring for the Oxford Professorship proved something of a distraction from the main historic mission of bringing alternative arts together I’ve been dedicated to since founding New Departures publications and the Poetry Olympics festivals in 1959, my last undergraduate year at Oxford. The hustings postponed my completion of two substantial anthologies, Great-Grandchildren of Albion and The POE! (Poetry Olympics Enlightenment) Anthology 

It was admittedly always unlikely that Michael would ever have won the position; but in his candidacy was represented a tradition that rarely gets institutional recognition, rarely finds its way into widely read anthologies and critical books. As he accompanies his poetry with a kazoo-like instrument of his own creation, the “Anglo-Saxophone” I quite fancy that it would at least enliven even the most mundane of lectures, let alone the diverse topics Horovitz could have brought to the post. But that is the bind with the Other candidate: we’ll never really quite know. 

I also explore some hypotheticals when I speak to Steve Goddard, particularly the thorny issue of tuition fees. “I have a very very very strong sense”, he begins “that I would have voted, as did a number of Lib Dem MPs, against the policy that was put forward by the government. And I would have done that because of the NUS pledge; and because in the end I think tuition fees are the wrong way to go for all sorts of reasons that I’ve rehearsed before in a variety of places.”  

I get the impression that Steve’s pro-student stance could have helped him ride out the unpopularity that has faced many of his colleagues since the formation of the coalition. Yet he backs off from any direct criticism. “It is not necessarily outrageous for Lib Dem MPs to end up following a policy that is different to that in the manifesto, simply because we didn’t win the election. I just happened to think that this was the wrong compromise.” 

Yet these are just hypotheticals. What actually happens to candidates when they don’t obtain office? Some do sink into the background like the second place candidate in student elections tend to do – but many carry on and actively demonstrate the alternative, keep the elected establishment in dialogue with its opposition. This is certainly Michael Horovitz’s approach. During our correspondences, he frequently tells me that he is in a rush, is busy both in his time and in his mind, juggling various commitments and “struggles personal, ideological, political, monetary and above all artistic.” He is also “developing further my William Blake Klezmatrix band and other musical confluences” and even has a “one-man poetry bandshow gig” coming up in Oxford at end of February.  

Steve Goddard on the other hand hasn’t yet decided what the future will hold for his relationship with politics. One feels, given his obvious fondness for his community, that he won’t disappear completely; but he tells me he has “no plan to stand in Oxford East. That’s meant to sound as vague as it is.” 

He cannot however quite escape the relationship that campaigning has forged with the constituency. After the election “there was this slight feeling that you were being looked at. People had seen ‘The Face’ so often on leaflets that of course they were probably thinking ‘where have I seen him from?’” It does seem an odd position between fame and anonymity, especially as Steve’s name was so ubiquitous across the city for weeks on end, peeking out of every third window, peeling at the corners. 

Yet in a sense, I can’t imagine I would have met the same Steve Goddard had he won the election. As his photo is taken for this feature, he reminisces that he was “always told for political photos I should wear a suit. That’s probably the best thing about not winning, you don’t have to wear a suit.” He even gets to try out different expressions for the photo, rather than the indiscriminately wide grin that was asked of him for campaign shots. And then, as I bring things to a close, my final question is met with his quickest and most enthusiastic answer. “The experience of standing, of standing three times, of being the candidate,” I ask, “did you enjoy it?” 

“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Absolutely brilliant. Being candidate meant doing things that I never thought I’d have the chance, or even have the confidence, to do – address a big public meeting… this time last year, as candidate, I took part in a charity abseil…” he searches for another phrase to summarise it, but his first works just fine: “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” 
 

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Michael Horovitz is performing at the Friends’ Meeting House, 43 St Giles, from 7pm on Wednesday 23rd February (details via stephen.yeo@pop3.poptel.org.uk or www.poetryolympics.com)