I want local council elections to be more exciting

Summary

No – really!

This post stems from posts by Hugh Morris (Why party politics has no place in local elections) and Richard Taylor (Cambridge City Council Election Candidates May 2012) on the looming local council elections.  

I remember on my paper round in the early 1990s homes having posters and signs saying who to vote for. What’s striking now is that there are far fewer homes displaying such boards or posters (irrespective of party) than during my paper round days, and that some of the names that were up on the posters are still there now.

In the run up to the 2010 general election, Cambridge was a fairly exciting place to be – it felt like a genuine marginal where any one of the three main parties could have taken the seat, along with a strong showing (by their standards) by the greens. There were vibrant hustings hosted by a number of organisations as well as a noticeable social media presence from many of the candidates.

On centralisation

Many commentators have spoken of how centralised the UK political system is – in particular in England – compared to other democracies. It always strikes me how I hear the soundbite “This election in [insert name of area] will be decided on local issues…” when a cursory glance at any ministerial question time in Parliament has the feel of “The Government’s policy on [insert name of policy] is going to have a good impact on [insert name of issue] in [insert name of constituency] for which my Rt hon/hon friend I know supports”. London is one of those few examples where power seems to have been genuinely devolved to an extent where Central Government has to take its hands of the reins.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that modern technology of the 1990s allowed for the tight controlling of who said what – as well as for rebuttals. It’s the Campbell/Mandelson paradigm if you like. Picture the MPs and candidates with pagers designed to keep them ‘on message’. Why the need to think for yourself when a policy expert in the HQ operations centre can provide all of the answers for you? It was also the time of what I think of as “Big media” – where having that onside was seen to work wonders. (Hence the wooing of the media barons). Finally, from a public services perspective, has the greater use of outsourcing and the rise of the quango taken much of the decision-making abilities of local councillors away? Did all of this help suck the life out of local politics?

Falling membership, falling numbers of volunteers

The only canvassers I’ve noticed knocking on my door round my neck of the woods are the Conservatives and Labour. Traditionally my ward has been something of a one-party-state for the latter, which may have had an impact on where other parties choose to direct their efforts and resources. But if volunteer power is limited – especially in times when party political membership is so low, how can we make it easier for people to find out a) that there is an election on, and b) who is standing?

For a politically-aware semi-permanently-networked dragon fairy guardian (for want of another job description) I know where to look. But for those less aware and less inclined, what is the answer?

Who meets when and where?

One of the things that strikes me is how the local political parties don’t seem to advertise when and where they meet to the general public. A brief glance at the websites of Cambridge Labour, Cambridge Conservatives, Cambridge Liberal Democrats and Cambridge Greens don’t indicate clearly (if at all) when and where they meet regularly. I’m aware locally of the first two having their own premises/members clubs, but little in terms of events that may be of interest – or welcome even – to non-members & people who might just be interested in what’s going on.

Local hustings – a local Question Time?

Personally I think it would be nice in the run up to the annual local elections to have a set piece local question time. Over a decade ago I saw a really well-run one in Hove (where I lived for part of my time at university) It had a very strong chair who also ensured that panellists did not ramble, pulled them up on their ‘lines to take’. He also ensured audience members (especially those ‘planted’ by political parties of various colours) kept their contributions short and to the point. (i.e. not reading off last week’s essay on post-colonialism trying to make it relevant to someone’s query on bin collections).

The debate on Twitter – and social media.

A number of local candidates have started sparring across Twitter – appearing on Puffles’ Twitterfeed. This for me is an interesting development because it allows the general public to see debates that otherwise may only take place in council chambers or on area committees. I’ve leant on Chris Havergal, local government correspondent at my local paper to feature some of these tweets in the run up to the election. That way it may encourage more people to interact with local candidates and put their own questions to them – going beyond the letters pages or the comments section.

Essentially what I’d like to see is more public debate between candidates and of a higher quality too. (Less of the name-calling & mud slinging, more on the policies and principles please!) One of the things I’m tempted to do is to schedule a Twitter debate towards the end of this month on a hashtag in the run up to the elections. If people are interested in something like this, please let me know in the comments section or via @Puffles2010.

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8 Responses to I want local council elections to be more exciting

  1. Sal says:

    I think the twitter discussion is a spectacular idea, but you’d need to make sure that the local written and broadcast press were covering it, or it’d be open to complaints that it was excluding people who didn’t have the right technology – mainly the elderly, but it would be sure to be widened – and this would give an excuse to candidates not to participate. Definitely worth a try, though and I’ll contribute my fevered penn’orth!

  2. It’s definitely a good idea – years ago, before I was politically aligned, I tried to organise one via the residents’ association I founded – only one party replied.

    I think you’d need some pretty strict rules though, otherwise it would turn into a free for all, and I’m not convinced twitter is the best medium for anyhing other than soundbites or over simplifications.

  3. Keith Lewis says:

    My children complain every year that they don’t know who to vote for because none of the candidates have bothered to tell thyem who they are and what they are about. The parties have to take some kind of responsibility for engaging the electorate, especially at the younger end, who don’t read the local paper, listen to local radio (or much news of any kind!), and aren’t even interested in anything as ‘last year’ as Twitter.

  4. i enjoyed this post and certainly share your ambitions….i started writing a comment but it got waaay to long, so i added it as a post, inspired by your post over on my blog: http://tobyblume.posterous.com/making-politics-and-elections-more-engaging-a

  5. Ed Hammond says:

    Living in London in the runup to the Mayoral elections, I’ve already had a flyer from the Socialist Party (fielding an assembly candidate but not a Mayoral one) and a doorstep visit by Labour – the first time in my life that I’ve ever had a doorstep canvasser knock on my door.

    The 2010 local elections were completely subsumed beneath the general election – although interestingly in London there was a distinct swing back to Labour, going against the national trend in the general election (and the local trend too).

    Proper engagement by political candidates with residents must be part of the answer – not just around election time. Hustings are an obvious and tangible way to do this, social media another (although social media activity around the Mayoral race is making me consider jacking in Twitter for the next month, with so much of it being so asinine).

    Some would say though that you’re never going to get public interest in local issues until local politicians have real clout, influence and decision-making power… but speaking as an entirely impartial researcher I couldn’t comment.

  6. Pingback: That was the local government week that was « We Love Local Government

  7. There have been Question Times for the last two Bourn Ward elections, another this year at The Hub in Cambourne on 1 May. Both have been webcast, with full transcriptions posted the next day for those unable to watch live. These events are a great opportunity for voters and for candidates and I’d like to see more of them.

    Cambridge would be able to do a Twitter debate, but I’m not so sure about South Cambridgeshire, although I’d love to help set one up if there were enough interest. I’ve tried to set up a list of tweeting candidates (https://twitter.com/#!/HollyAdamsUK/scdc2012) but am seeing very little activity. Perhaps I’ve missed someone? If you’re a South Cambs election candidate, please let me know and I’ll add you to the list. And if anyone is interested in a Twitter debate, DM me on Twitter and let’s see if we can set something up, but sooner rather than later – postal ballots are on their way to voters already.

  8. Pingback: How not to brand your Twitter page | A dragon's best friend

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