Below is an article I wrote at the request of Total Politics magazine. It’s in the current issue.
If you are candidate seeking election, it’s good to have endorsements from known and trusted local figures on your election literature.
The best endorsements demonstrate reach and respect in the local community, even if you are a relatively new or unknown candidate. They can also help you get across key campaign messages, coming from the mouths of people outside it.
But the reverse of the coin (no money should ever change hands, by the way) is the endorsement that undermines your credibility, either through accidental error, or changing allegiances – or worse, deliberate falsehood.
So here’s some advice for the wary:
Choose endorsers in advance, ideally ready for the short campaign before polling day. Remember it can be a big thing for many people to be asked to appear in a political leaflet. Perhaps their work forbids them engaging in politics (police, council employees, etc), or perhaps dipping into politics is not for them. So be considerate and accepting if they are in any doubt – never push your luck, or their patience. And never jeopardise anybody’s job. Always thank people for their time and trouble, whether they endorse you or not.
Gather a range of people who are representative of the community you are seeking to represent. Think about a good spread of ages, ethnicities, roles in the community (e.g. shopkeeper, local vet, residents’ association chair), and family situations.
Look at where endorsers live or work in your patch – it’s good to be able to mention their street (but always get permission). Get a good geographical spread. If all your endorsers live in one street, their support may not appeal to voters living on the other side of the ward or constituency, where there may be other issues they care about.
Deploy endorsers sparingly in leaflets. Probably the maximum in any leaflet is five. Don’t overcrowd leaflets with glowing praise for you – you need space for your policy offer as a candidate and to take on the policy shortcomings of your opposition. Feed endorsements out gradually, leaflet by leaflet, which will help show momentum in your campaign.
Be imaginative. Leaflets are not the only way. Letters to local papers are good, if they print them. Direct mails from an endorser to their neighbours in a cluster of streets around can be powerful. Help them write a one-page (perhaps double-sided) letter in a neighbourly, legible way that can be copied and delivered. This is still election literature so don’t forget the imprint.
Focus primarily on voices in your community and bring in other politicians cautiously. They don’t always carry weight. You may be best mates with the MP for Blatherpool South East, but in Blatherpool North West their name may be mud, and that mud may stick to you.
Similarly, don’t count on celebrities you know to win many hearts and minds. They may have been in your woodwork class at Blatherpool High, and can add pizzazz to a campaign, but a smiley picture in a faraway place may turn off more voters than it turns out.
Think carefully about what you want your endorsers to say about you. Rather than lavishing praise on your almost saintly wisdom and compassion, it should be about the work you have done – or will do if elected – for the community (e.g. better lighting on the Pitchdark Estate), or refer to a key campaign you are involved in (e.g. saving a youth centre or mobile library service).
Draft a brief quote – voters won’t read essays – and give it to the endorser to approve. Never, ever print a quote that has not been approved – it may not reflect your endorser’s views on you or an issue. They should be able to happily support their quote if a neighbour – or opposition activist – comes to their door to question it. Ask them to physically sign off the quote in case of a dispute later on.
Always try and get varying pictures of your endorsers, some with you and some alone doing average everyday things – gardening, shopping, dog walking, etc. If children appear in family pictures, a consent form will need to be signed by parents. If an endorsement is connected with a campaign, get a picture with you in front of the threatened building, or with your petition. Make the picture tell a story as actively as possible – even if it’s just chatting to each other.
Elections are nervy times so it often feels easiest to play safe. But residents who are also members of your party (‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’) are often not the best endorsers. Independence of mind counts for a lot in an endorser, but it comes with the risk that minds can change next week when an opposition leaflet appears blaming you for all the ills of the world.
Really surprising endorsements – the ones that raise eyebrows and cause comment – are often the most valuable. But consider the risks carefully. Sound people out. If you don’t, your endorser may turn out to be not all they seem, whether in fickle support for you or your party, or politically damaging aspects of their life you were innocent of. Sometimes, they may be keen to lend their support but expect special treatment in the future. Beware.
On their own, endorsements will not win your election – only gruelling slog on the doorsteps will do that – but they do help to give a sense to voters (hopefully rightly) that you are someone worth investing their vote in on polling day.