Chi Onwurah: It's the unpaid volunteers, not a cheque book, that brings an election to life

Labour's parliamentary candidate for Newcastle Central praises the General Election's volunteer army and hopes message will appear in new political play

MP Chi Onwurah
MP Chi Onwurah

Newcastle’s Live Theatre, famous for plays based on Chris Mullan’s books as well as the Pitman Painters and other original works is staging a new play set during the current General Election.

What Falls Apart by Torben Betts opens on Wednesday (April 22) and it features a North East politician in campaign mode.

Director Max Roberts was keen that the cast should talk to a North East politician, also in campaign mode. I am a great fan of Live Theatre and also think politics benefits from greater transparency, in every respect.

So in between knocking on doors, campaign visits and election hustings I found 45 minutes to the cast about the mechanics of the electoral process – on condition that I wasn’t quoted on stage!

What surprised them the most was just how much the campaign relies on volunteers – how few people are paid any kind of salary for the work they do in the run up to our General Election.

Marginal seats may have a paid organiser and sitting MPs such as myself retain their parliamentary salary until the people have made their choice, but just about everyone else including most parliamentary candidates and their agents receive no payment for the long hours that every single election campaign involves.

Today is also the day that postal votes start arriving in people’s homes.

Over 40% of the voters in the constituency in which I’m standing, Newcastle Central, have postal votes so in effect the election starts the moment those ballot slips hit doormats and we want the Labour message to get there first.

So over the last week volunteers here have been delivering, by hand, 16,000 direct mail letters from me asking postal voters for their support. In a couple of weekends time there will be another 16,000 letters to deliver, this time to non-postal voters.

A scene from What Falls Apart
A scene from What Falls Apart

Then we are also sending each first time voter a letter to encourage them first and foremost to vote – and then to vote Labour of course.

So that is 34,000 envelopes through people’s doors over two weeks. If they were delivered by Royal Mail we would be looking at over £18,000. More than we are allowed to spend.

In response to feedback praising these letters the Greens tweeted ‘funds were tight for parties which didn’t have big business backers’. The fact is neither do we, and indeed most constituency parties can’t afford to pay Royal Mail to distribute mail for them.

Instead campaigns rely on volunteers, like the ones that have been coming to my agent’s house over the past few days, picking up two or three or five or six streets’ worth of mail and taking it off to deliver in their own time.

And whether they are working for the Labour Party, the Conservatives or whoever, it is this army of volunteers that make democracy work in this country - as much as it does.

Without them, power would simply go to those with the deepest pockets. With them, a party is something more than a cheque book and a manifesto.

What Falls Apart will be at the Live Theatre in Newcastle between April 22 and May 16 2015.

Tickets are £22-£10.

Box office: 0191 2321232


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