If elections were won and lost based on the quality of the pitch a candidate made to the electorate, then Will Straw, a Labour candidate in Lancashire, would probably be home and dry by now.
Will, son of former foreign secretary Jack (probably the most famous person* in my contacts book thanks to a spell at the Lancashire Telegraph), is standing in the Rossendale and Darwen constituency, which is where I live.
It’s a swing seat of sorts. In previous general elections, it was flagged up as the one the Tories needed to win to get into Number 10. They won it off Labour in 2010, but still didn’t make it into Number 10. And as a result, it’s had less attention this time – until this week.
Thanks to Lord Ashcroft and his independent polling, Rossendale and Darwen appears to be one of the closest to call seats going:
Clearly Will’s presence for the last 18 months is doing something – he’s closed a 2010 gap from 10% to nothing, largely at the expense of the Lib Dems.
Will he win? I have no idea – but he’s certainly trying harder than the local Labour Party on the council, who (in my ward at least) have failed to deliver any sort of presence on the ground for the last three elections).
But what makes Will stand out for me is this: his manifesto. Not just one manifesto, but two – one for Darwen, a small mill town which sits in the shadow of Blackburn in a different borough to a large part of Rossendale, a largely rural collection of towns which, in parts, look far more towards Manchester than they do into Lancashire.
In my experience, politicians tend to deliver top-line messages very well. They’ll do this, they’ll do that. But rarely do their share their workings out in such detail as Will has done here.
Elections might be won and lost on national issues, but putting them in local context is something many politicians fails to do other than in the ‘insert name of town here and smile’ sort of way.
The manifesto, running to almost 40 pages, draws on ONS data to show how issues are affecting Rossendale, such as how pay has dropped far more dramatically in the constituency than it has nationally. It reflects on what he has heard on the doorstep and puts it into context. It doesn’t constantly wave an angry fist at other parties, but does highlight where things aren’t working, and produces evidence to back that up.
A good example of this is that while unemployment figures might be falling nationally, 8.7% of the Rossendale population are out of work, up from 4.4% two years ago. In Welfare, of 4,760 claiming benefits, just 300 have moved into the back to work programme, and only 20 have actually found work.
A particularly damning one which stood out for me is that my local hospital has missed the A&E target for over 100 weeks.
It is, in short, a grown up way to engage with those voters who want the substance behind the promises. In an age where it took the Manchester Evening News just minutes to identify candidates who can’t even be bothered to move to the region when standing for election, Will’s plan is a refreshing change.
Politics is at a crossroads. For too long, politicians at all levels have treated voters with something bordering on contempt, restricting conversations to soundbites and headlines, and dodging answers. At the same time, the voting public also has a responsibility to put aside doubts about politicians and engage in the democratic process properly.
In his autobiography, Will’s Dad Jack tells a story about how he was once collared at Euston by an elder statesman MP and asked where he was going. Jack said he was off to his constituency, Blackburn, to meet constituents. The elder statesman MP laughed and said he only visited his constituency at elections. It would have been very easy for Jack to have done the same once he became home secretary and foreign secretary, but he did the opposite.
There’s a story which gets told that Jack once left a Iraq war meeting in the White House to take a phone call from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph … about wheelie bins. I’m not sure if it’s folklore or not. On the 2005 campaign election trail, I was at a meeting Jack attended at a school which prompted anti-war protests outside. As things began to get a bit too tasty outside, Jack was told by the police to get in a police car. I assumed it was interview over, but Jack was having none of it – the interview continued in the back of the police car – only halted when Jack leaned forward and told the driver that perhaps the sirens weren’t needed on an empty road.
The point I’m attempting to make in this trip down memory lane is that the best politicians are the ones who go above and beyond when trying to connect with voters. I’ve no idea how many people have downloaded or read Will’s manifestos for Darwen or Rossendale, but they deserve a wide audience.
If more politicians took such a considered, open approach, I suspect politics would be in a much better place. I’m not saying Will will win, I’m not saying how I’ll vote (honest answer: don’t know) but I do know that as efforts to win an election by treating local people and issues with respect, attention and consideration go, the efforts of Will Straw are in a different league to anything I’ve seen before.
* I say probably because some of my friends are more impressed by the fact I used to have a mobile number for one of the Chuckle Brothers. But it doesn’t work any more.