Making elections local again: The national politician with sound advice for all

bigbenIn the hours which followed the recent local elections, the pattern of the political responses was typical.

Labour tried to hype up its addition of 290 seats, claiming it was down to a dis-satisfied public fed up with the state of the economy. However, another reading of that would be to point out if the public are fed up with the economy (and why wouldn’t they be), they aren’t turning to Labour in the sorts of numbers it can use to say it has convinced the public it has an alternative.

Oh, Labour reply, you’re being unfair – these elections were mainly in Tory heartlands, so we were never going to do *that* well.

The Tories, having been expected to do much worse than the 335 seats, and 10 councils they lost control of, pointed to Labour’s unspectacular performance, but also dashed to promise those who voted UKIP that it would listen to their protest vote. But how can they be sure of what people were protesting about? Two people I know voted UKIP to protest at the level of VAT in this country – I’m not entirely convinced that particular protest will register.

And then UKIP. No denying they performed very well, and depending on which interview involving Nigel Farage you listened to, you’ll get a different view on why they did so well. It’s because the Tories insulted his party. It’s because people are fed up of the political classes. It’s because the main parties have no connection with reality. It’s because of Europe. It’s became of the economy. And so on and so on.

Finally, the Lib Dems. Down 124 councillors – 24% – not great, but not the wipeout predicted. And it’s from the much-maligned party in yellow that I think the most sensible assessment of the local elections emerged.

This is the party which came seventh in the parliamentary by-election in South Shields. You can argue that particular aspect of the result many ways: What impact did the independent candidate have? Did Lib Dem voters stay away? Who went to UKIP? But Tim Farron, the Lib Dem Party president, delivered perhaps the most salient piece of political advice I’ve heard in a long time.

Speaking on Five Live as the results came in, Farron said that while there was no doubt their candidate in South Shields was a good candidate, he was a four-week candidate – ie he’d been parachuted in for the elections. The party had no infrastructure in South Shields, added Farron. In the areas where it was established and had that network to get its message out, it performed better.

The message, Farron said, was clear: Politicians can’t just turn up in time for the elections. They need to be showing people what they are doing all the time.

For politicians everywhere scratching their heads at why results didn’t go their way, surely the  assessment from Farron is worth taking to heart. I blogged a fortnight ago on how the local had been taken out of local elections – especially by Labour – as political parties sought to make it some sort of referendum on affairs in Westminster. Ed Miliband was particularly guilty of this, stubbornly refusing to address his distortion of the local elections in interviews on Five Live in the run up to polling day while at the same time insisting people should judge Labour at the ballot box based on its past errors – spot the man who wants to have his cake and eat it.

Roy Greenslade, the journalism blogger, linked to the blog post on the day The Sun broke with tradition and urged people to vote on local issues, not party lines. Greenslade said the blame also lay with national journalists for hijacking local elections. He’s probably right – but I’d argue the onus lies with the political parties to draw up manifestos which reflect what their party colour would do if in charge of a local town hall. Yes, it is possible to draw up such a national manifesto setting out local strategy. If it’s not, why bother having national political parties at a local level?

The ebb and flow of tribal popularity is surely likely to make less of a difference at a local level if local politicians don’t just turn up four weeks before election day promising the earth in return for your vote.  Tell people want you’re doing, make sure you are visible, reply to their emails and letters and make yourself the voice of the community.

Farron isn’t just stating the obvious, he’s drawing on personal history. Prior to being an MP, he was a councillor for part of Leyland, in the parliamentary constituency of South Ribble in Lancashire. South Ribble swings between Tories and Labour, it’s not a Lib Dem heartland by any stretch. Yet Farron was a popular councillor – both at county and borough level – largely, in my opinion, because he kept himself in touch with people.

I know this because his newsletters were regular arrivals at the newspapers I worked at in the late 1990s. No issue was too small to warrant his attention. And he was visible throughout the electoral cycle.

So where does the local journalist fit in here? Well, now’s the time to make contact with all those new councillors out there and keep in touch with them, asking what is happening and what is going on. Those who want to be re-elected will know to keep in touch with you.

When working as political reporter at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, I used to find it incredibly tedious being asked to get the Conservative Party candidate’s view on a particular issue even two years before the next general election. In my mind, he had no mandate, and Blackburn is likely to be forever Labour. In hindsight – and with a decade on my age – I can see it made sense. Just because a town is always going to vote red doesn’t mean the red view shouldn’t be challenged. It’s our job to make sure those views are heard.

If those views aren’t around to be heard, then the politicians have only themselves to blame when they become victims of a protest vote or the hijacking of local elections by their party elders down in Westminster.



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