Standing in the polling station in our village school yesterday, I had a choice: I could vote for the current, Tory, councillor who is a nice enough chap and who has helped solve a couple of problems over the last two years (a weak bridge and bad bin collections in case you’re interested) or a Labour candidate, who happens to live down my street and who is a force for good in our community.
The Tory sitting councillor hadn’t sent so much as a leaflet to us explaining why we should vote for him, but maybe he was confident his track record spoke for itself. The Labour candidate did – it was only then we realised she was standing for election. When I came to vote, the prospect of either giving David Cameron a good kicking or endorsing Ed Miliband’s Labour revolution didn’t cross my mind. I voted based on what had happened locally, and what I thought should happen locally.
Just after 10pm yesterday, the tweets about the local elections being a ‘snapshot of the national mood’ began. At one point last night, Sky News was describing local voters as having the futures of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband in their hands as they went to the polls. This morning, breakfast telly was full of declarations from Labour that the results were a vote of no confidence in the coalition, while the Tories were keen to put it down to mid-term blues. One just-ousted councillor on the south coast blamed ‘the Jeremy Hunt story.’
If Jeremy Hunt’s curious dealings with News International really led to a Tory councillor losing her seat on the local council, then I think we have got a problem. We as a country, and we as a regional media too.
Seeing the local elections as a snapshot view on national politics makes life easy, both for national (and London-based) journalists, and also for local politicians. For London-based journalists, a bad night for the ruling party in the local elections can lead to a reshuffle which provides them with yards of copy for days. For local politicians, it makes it possible to go to the polls without even issuing a leaflet, and then blaming their own demise on the national situation.
But for the average man in the street, should he exist, it soon becomes obvious that his vote doesn’t mean very much. Local election votes didn’t bring down Gordon Brown at his most unpopular, and they won’t bring down the coalition yet. But it does make it easy for those in town halls – both political and officer classes – to carry on regardless.
Marc Reeves noted on his Chamberlain Files blog before the local election that you very rarely see a manifesto by a party for Birmingham – what they’d do if they win. You see ward-by-ward promises – if the candidates can be bothered to issue them – but nothing which enables people to say ‘that’s what I want for my city.’
So when Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, stood up to celebrate regaining Brum from the Lib/Con coalition, he was short on specifics about the policies which had returned Labour to power in the city. It was, he said ‘about more jobs for Birmingham, more jobs for young people, and improving our schools.’ Policies, he said would be announced from this afternoon. Surely the policies should be in place prior the ballot box closing?
The situation we find ourselves in also places a lot of power in the hands of council officers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does explain why councils rarely change policy course when the parties at the top change. Some of that is, of course, financial – a Labour council sweeping in can’t stop every school closure – for example – but isn’t it a little odd that so few councils switched back to weekly bin collections – an obvious vote winner – when given the chance by government?
If the main political parties all said at local elections ‘vote for us and we’ll give you x, y and z if we run the local council’ it would be different. People would know what difference they could make and go for it. It wouldn’t then take a hatred of government policy to bring Labour a council seat in the Vesey part of Sutton Coldfield for the first time since 1945 – it would be a desire to see Labour deliver their vision for local government. But they don’t – because the current situation is easier for them.
In short, it’s now very easy for local politicians to coast through elections with no policies as such, or even a desire to get out and knock on some doors. I’m sure some people will point to social media, but 140 characters won’t engage voters like a knock on the door does. Like it or not, the BNP had the right idea in the early 2000s when it knocked on local doors, found out what the issues were and then flogged those issues to death. It’s the repugnant response to those issues which makes the BNP so undesirable to many, rather than their mechanism of grassroots campaigning. And they got found out for that.
At Manchester City Council, there are now predictions that the town hall could become a one-party state, such is Labour’s dominance. Even Sir Richard Leese, leader of the council, acknowledges his party’s stranglehold is such that they will have to work even harder to be accountable to the public. Brilliant – councillors determining how they need to be accountable.
In Rochdale, a 19-year-old has been elected to represent Labour. 19! He says it will open the door for many more teenagers to get elected. He’s wrong – what’ll make that happy is blind party voting based on national lines.
All in all, it’s bad news for the local media – I don’t just mean newspapers, but hyperlocal sites too. If we treat local elections just as a vote on how things are going in Westminster, then we fail to hold local government to account. Turnout falls, and we end up asking ourselves why do we cover the elections at all? The thrill and buzz which journalists get from working through the night in a strip-lit sports hall isn’t enough.
We do have the ability to try and turn things around, and here are five suggestions:
1. Insist on a council-wide manifesto every election: If the parties can’t list their priorities for a council area as a whole, then why should people vote for them?
2. Get each candidate to answer questions on their area: This works very well on sites such as BlogPreston. If people don’t respond, then leave it to the public to make up their own minds.
3. Empower the public: Think surveys. What are the issues which matter to readers? Lets not assume that the things the local politicians might be talking about are the big talking points. Jobs may be a big issue, but it’s a bit vague for politicians to say ‘we’ll work for more jobs.’ Get them going on specific points. That’s how the Lancashire Evening Telegraph ended up asking Tony Blair about oversized hedges in 2005. Seasoned political hacks might mock – but it was the question which got asked more than any other by readers.
4. Do fact check journalism: At Journal Register Company, the digital first news organisation in America, many newsrooms now have ‘fact check’ journalists – not dissimilar to the fact-checking stuff done by Channel 4 and The Guardian. This could work brilliantly at a local level – how much power does Albert Bore really have to create new jobs? Answer: Not much, probably.
5. Constantly give the public a say: The elections happen on a set day, but the decisions the winners make take place all year. We have so many tools at our disposal – polls, Twitter, Facebook, email even – to get the views of people on the issues which impact on them, that it’s easier than ever to make sure the voices of voters are heard all year round. The more we do that, the more people should see through national vote blindness.
Several times on the radio today there’s been talk of Cameron and Clegg having to appease backbench MPs after a poor night at the polls. But that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – if Westminster treats the local elections like an annual popularity contest, then it’s no surprise that voters end up doing the same. And we’re all losers then.