WELL, there we have it.

Rishi Sunak has finally blown the starting whistle on the general election, having held said whistle close to his lips and threatened to maybe breathe on it for months, like the world’s meekest football referee.

The UK will go to the polls on July 4 in a general election which will be a litany of firsts.

It’s the first general election since we officially left the European Union on the back of Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide, where he promised to “get Brexit done”.

For some who were too young to vote in the Brexit referendum itself (which makes me feel old just writing it), it will be their first opportunity at the ballot box to either endorse the government’s record or do their best to remove from office the people they believe have wrecked their futures.

It’s also the first general election to be held since the coronavirus pandemic.

Somerset County Gazette: The arrival of the ballot boxes is a key part in the night of any journalist covering an election.The arrival of the ballot boxes is a key part in the night of any journalist covering an election. (Image: Tom Dare)

While the days of social distancing and clapping for carers may have begun slipping from our collective consciousness, the long-term effects linger in our society – whether it’s working from home, the impact on our children’s education, or our expectations of what government should and shouldn’t do.

There’s a reason Rishi mentioned the furlough scheme in his damp address outside 10 Downing Street. He’s hoping people remember what the Conservatives did to help during that crisis – and wishing people wouldn’t bring up partygate, the PPE scandal or Eat Out to Help Out.

There are plenty of other firsts that come with this election which are fascinating to politics nerds like me.

It’s the first July election since 1945 (Labour’s historic post-war landslide under Clement Attlee), the first to be held when we’ve had a king since 1951 (Winston Churchill’s last hurrah), and the first to be held during a major football tournament since 1970 (with professors still arguing how much impact that had on Edward Heath’s surprise victory).

For me, this is my fourth general election as a journalist, my second since becoming a local democracy reporter, and the fifth time I will be old enough to have voted in such a contest (I’ll let you do the maths).

Somerset County Gazette: The Liberal Democrats have had a resurgence in the south west in recent local and by-elections.The Liberal Democrats have had a resurgence in the south west in recent local and by-elections. (Image: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire)

In the coming weeks our politicians will play up how important this contest it – they’ll be talk of necessary change, of securing Britain’s future, of not letting Party X wreck the economy. Some of these claims will contain more truth and carry more weight than others.

But whoever you end up voting for, and for whatever reason, my advice to you is the same I would give to my fellow journalists: we must learn to remain normal in the face of the extraordinary.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the hullabaloo of an election – and this campaign promises to be a lot more exciting and eventful than, say, Tony Blair’s ‘quiet landslide’ of 2001.

But as more recent elections have shown, especially 2019, it’s very easy to lose perspective.

In the social media age, it’s dangerously easy to only listen to the voices you agree with, responding to dissenters with anger, contempt or condescension – and possibly being met with a rude awakening when the exit polls come in.

Playing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ (Labour’s anthem for the 1997 campaign) in the background while the PM made his speech was inspired, but very soon the humour may turn to something much more nasty and ugly, on all sides.

It wouldn’t surprise me, for instance, if Reform resurrected the ‘let’s have our own independence day’ shtick that they trotted out from their days as the Brexit Party – whether or not a certain Mr Farage is standing on the platform, or merely smirking from the sidelines.

So, in the interests of mental and emotional stability, let me give you a run-down of what happens from hereon in – and what you actually need to do.

Firstly, we have a frantic few days where the government tries to get through as much as it can before the King officially dissolves parliament on May 30.

Many laws may fall by the wayside because there simply isn’t time to get them through proper scrutiny before His Majesty gives them royal assent. Watch out for those that make the cut – it’s one more problem for the next government to worry about.

After that, you can look forward to weeks of election leaflets through your letterbox, posters in your neighbours’ windows and gardens, targeted adverts on your social networks and angry conversations, whether in the pub, at home or via WhatsApp.

For us journalists, it’s weeks of press releases, candidates being announced, being glued to social media and dashing across the county as and when ministers or other leading figures are bussed in to boost their candidates.

Somerset County Gazette: Rebecca Pow (Con) and Gideon Amos (Lib Dem) will go head-to-head.Rebecca Pow (Con) and Gideon Amos (Lib Dem) will go head-to-head. (Image: Contributed)

The boundary changes and recent by-election results will mean no-one will be taken for granted – every party will be fighting for every vote in every seat.

As a local democracy reporter, we’re about to enter the pre-election period, whether neither the government nor any local authority can announce any new policies or spending (for fear it would sway the electorate one way or the other).

Somerset Council will still make day-to-day decisions, such as on planning applications, and normal public services will still be delivered – such as bin collections, environmental health inspections and street cleaning.

When an election is called, it’s tempting to only focus on the campaign and let locally made decisions slip under the radar – but that won’t be happening on my watch.

So, what should you be doing now that the election is called?

Firstly – and most importantly of all – make sure you’re registered to vote.

Most of us already will be if we voted in the police and crime commissioner elections earlier this month, but it always pays to double-check by going to www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. DO NOT leave it until the last minute.

Secondly, make sure you have the necessary ID so you can vote. This is the first general election where you will need to show your passport, drivers’ licence or other ID at your local polling station.

Whatever your views on this policy, the last thing our democracy needs is thousands of people being prevented from voting on polling day, not because of any skulduggery on the government’s part, but because they forgot their ID – I’m looking at you, Boris.

Somerset County Gazette: Don't get caught out: Boris Johnson, who was turned away from a polling station in May's local elections for not having appropriate voter ID.Don't get caught out: Boris Johnson, who was turned away from a polling station in May's local elections for not having appropriate voter ID. (Image: Andrew Boyers/PA Wire)

There’s been enough seething resentment on both the left and the right without adding this to the bonfire of calamities.

Thirdly, make sure you’re in a position to make an informed decision when you vote. Read all the manifestos and the election leaflets that come through your door – it may seem boring, or a waste of time, but it’s vitally important.

Follow the coverage, from multiple sources. If hustings are held in your area, go along and ask a question. Your MP will be responsible for representing your interests until mid-2029 – don’t just put a cross in any box on a whim, and if you spoil your ballot, please only do so as a last resort.

Fourthly – and at the risk of sounding like an empty hashtag – be kind.

As a nation, we are going to spend a lot of time arguing over the next six weeks or so. So in the midst of what may be the most important general election in a generation, take time to be courteous and civil to people. We are all human beings, and disagreeing is okay.

We have plenty to look forward to this summer alongside the election – including the Euros.

Comparisons with the World Cups of 1966 and 1970 will doubtlessly be drawn, but even if you don’t care about football (like me), don’t like politics infect everything. Some things in life are more important.

In Somerset, the fight for all seven of the new seats promises to be a fascinating contest.

The Liberal Democrats, buoyed by their victory in the Somerton and Frome by-election last July, will want to prove they are truly “back in the West Country”, reclaiming as much of their former heartland as possible and rolling back the ‘blue wave’ that swept across the south west in 2015.

For the Conservatives, they will defend the government (though maybe not the prime minister) to the hilt, pointing to the investment that is flowing in from Hinkley Point C and the new gigafactory, along with all the regeneration funding for Bridgwater, Chard, Glastonbury, Taunton and Yeovil.

Labour will fancy their chances in Bridgwater, while the Greens will seek to hoover up voters who are unhappy with the local Lib Dems or feel Keir Starmer’s just not radical enough. While much of the county may seem like a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems, there may be some upsets along the way.

In short, the next few weeks will be a blur – sometimes it will be bliss, sometimes it will be hell, and sometimes it may be a bit dull.

We all need to take it seriously and we all need to be kind – before and after the result.

Bring it on.