Lessons from Scotland for David Norris

Not for the first time, David Norris’ campaign for the Presidency of Ireland is having to pull itself out of the fire – only this time he has to do it with a half-empty office. Though his campaign managed to substantially claw-back ground over the summer the events of this weekend have left David Norris’ candidacy in tatters.

After it emerged that in 1997 Norris used his position as one of Trinity College’s members of Seanad Éireann to write a character reference for a former lover who was facing sentence in Israel for the rape of a 15-year-old, the Senator finds himself without a director of communications, a director of elections, a youth organiser, a social media manager, and many others. My own experience of elections puts the end of the Norris campaign down to two factors: firstly, Senator Norris’ political judgement; and secondly, the difficulties faced by Independent candidates and representatives more generally.

From a political perspective the first makes for better headlines but is, arguably, easier to overcome. During my time at the Scottish Parliament the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was hauled before the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament to explain her decision to write a character reference for a constituent, on trial for benefit fraud, about whose character she had failed to make even the most basic inquiries (unluckily for Ms. Sturgeon he, in fact, had a previous conviction for benefit fraud). These incidents highlight the follies of legislators interfering with the judicial process.

As was rightly pointed out during the Sturgeon debacle it is not entirely uncommon for elected members to write character references for constituents who are facing sentence. However those who are going to do so should be wary of two potential traps:

  1. That you are absolutely certain of the good character to which you are attesting;
  2. That in writing such a letter you are free from potential accusations of nepotism or favouritism, and that such a letter is one which you would write for any constituent in the same situation.

Nicola Sturgeon fell foul of the former of these two traps; David Norris has fallen foul of the latter.

However more generally David Norris’ campaign has always been far more susceptible to falling into such obvious political traps because of the difficulties faced by independent candidates recruiting the very-best in political staff. Representatives from the political parties can usually draw from a very large, very broad pool of talent who’ve been wedded to your cause for years. I used to see the piles of CVs MSPs would have to sift-through when recruiting a Parliamentary aide. Often candidates with years of political knowledge and experience wouldn’t even make the long-list. Conversely, a dear friend of mine from one of the smaller parties regularly speaks of how difficult it is to recruit staff with experience of ‘the political machine’.

If small parties and independents want to recruit staffers with any campaign experience then that often means experience of single-issue campaigns, causes or charities, the private sector, or student politics. While all of these bring unique and valuable experience (and often larger parties would do well to remember that) it doesn’t quite compare to the experience that can be gained through the mainstream of the political parties.

And do not underestimate the importance of political staff. Despite being on a fraction of the salary of their political masters they’re often far more attuned to the political ether. Many have more experience in politics than their employers. Your staff can keep you focussed on your political goals; and rein you in when you’re getting carried-away. They’ll help you spot potential traps ahead, and anticipate the questions you never thought might be asked. These skills can only be acquired through having been weather-beaten by the party political machine. This is the real difficulty faced by independent candidates.