What happens when you take your dragon to the polling station?

Summary

On May’s local elections (2012)

Puffles likes to take the little ones out and about. None of the staff seemed to have a problem with a couple of dragon fairies buzzling around the polling station – not that anyone else seemed to be around at the time other than the Labour tick-box bloke asking for numbers.

18 months ago it was George Owers (Lab) and Andy Bower (Con) who went head-to-head in a by-election – George coming out on top. This time around, I found only one of my four candidates on Twitter – George, and he seemed to be the only one who knocked on my door. As nothing seemed to come from the Lib Dems or the Greens, I couldn’t really pass judgement. With no social media outlet either from the local Conservative candidate, I couldn’t grill him in the way I had given Andy a hard time in past elections.

In recent years I’ve gotten into the habit of scrutinising and questioning local candidates. In the 2010 general election I did exactly this – emailing each of the candidates standing in Cambridge. Julian Huppert (LD) and Tony Juniper (Greens) came back with very detailed responses. Martin Booth (Socialists) responded, while Old Holborn (Ind) posted responses on his blog. Nick Hillman (Con), although first to respond I felt rushed his responses so got back to him on a number of points, inviting him to “try again”. Peter Burkinshaw (UKIP)’s one-liners left me less than impressed, and Daniel Zeichner (Lab) failed to respond at all. On the basis of the responses it was a close fight between Julian and Tony. (Remember this was pre-Coalition).

Since 2010, the Cambridge political scene has changed somewhat. The Greens seem to have imploded from their 2010 peak when they secured nearly 4,000 votes at the general election – also returning a couple of councillors. Adam Pogonowski I found out today has switched allegiance from the Greens to Labour, meaning that there is no Green Party representation on the City Council. Despite this implosion and what felt like almost zero campaigning, the Greens still picked up nearly 3,000 votes throughout the city. Does this show that there is a core of support that a new competent local organiser could rebuild around? The Liberal Democrats in Cambridge meanwhile have lost control of the Council – now nominally in no overall control.

In my blogpost What things affect how a person votes? I listed a series of different things. When George turned up at my front door, it was my Mum who he first started speaking to – asking about what her local issues of concern were rather than “Hi, I’m George! Vote for me!” I hope he won’t mind me saying it but this style of community engagement has slightly mellowed (in a good way) the firebrand tribalist of Labour’s left. You can imagine the shock he got when he turned around to find a big purple dragon fairy peering over my Mum’s shoulder.

My decision to vote for George was a fairly straight-forward one. He was the only candidate in my ward who seemed to have made an effort. He was also the only one who seemed to be reasonably accessible via the social media means that I use. It’s a particular shame for the Greens and the Conservatives because I think a strong visible local candidate for either could have given George a run for his money – as Andy showed in 2010. But let’s be clear – my vote for George was because of George, not because of national Labour; it was inspite of. This for me was about who I thought would be the best individual to represent me and the area that I spent much of my childhood in and around. By reaching out to the community and making himself accessible – and by the others not, that decision was relatively straight forward.

That’s not to say George is guaranteed my votes in the future. I’m a floating voter, making up my mind dependent on the circumstances I face. Knowing that I have an interest in politics and that my vote is there to be competed for provides an (however tiny and minuscule) incentive both for parties to select stronger candidates and for said candidates to reach out more.

I guess tomorrow we’ll be hearing politicians saying that the vote ‘sends a message to the Prime Minister/Deputy Prime Minister/Leader of the Opposition’. Personally I don’t think they can make that claim unless they’ve done some decent research into why people voted the way that they did. If the data says people voted predominantly on national issues then fair enough. But saying so without the data means that strong local candidates and activists are not given credit for their work in securing the results that they did. Given that fewer people are members of political parties/have weaker allegiances to them, are more votes up for grabs or are we living in de-politicised times?

That’s not to say it’s any easier for independent candidates – as Suzanne Moore’s experience in 2010 shows. I gave my own thoughts in MPs and political parties – and the advantages of being in the latter. One of my observations there was that in a larger party you know there is someone with similar values who has expertise in almost any given area who you can ‘fall back on’ if you don’t know the answer. The problem in recent times is that the system of centralised control has taken away the ability of too many politicians to think for themselves – leaving them being seen as automatons re-spouting lines to take. We see these on TV political debate shows when politicians recite their key points and lines to take. I used to write some of these for ministers. “Key points” “Lines to take/Q&A” and “If pushed”.

As more and more people start using social media, the ability for ‘top down’ control of politicians becomes that much harder. We get to see more of the warts, foibles and rough edges rather than the smooth, polished products of the political machine. Good. We’re all human. (Apart from Puffles who is a dragon). This inevitably means the centre having to let go of the reins. No longer can they rely on the cash-heavy people-lite advertising campaigns and billboard posters. Such things are far too easily lampooned in social media world, meaning the hoped-for impact is otherwise lost. 1997 this isn’t.

But while more people are using social media, it doesn’t mean they are automatically using it (or want to use it) for politics. There are also lots of people who don’t use social media too. When George and Andy told me how little correspondence stems from their websites I was a little disappointed – though reflected that this might be part of the local political culture here: One that’s still face-to-face or old-media-based.

I’m going to try and do my bit to help turn things around. In one sense I already have with the workshops on social media I’ve done for local councillors in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire – ones that I hope to run again for the new intake of councillors. As I said to the local Community and Voluntary Services today, with social media you have to go where the people are. That means following on Twitter or joining the various fan-pages on Facebook. (Randomly “friending” people on the latter who happen to live locally but who you don’t know just strikes me as wrong – especially if you’re an adult seeking public office!)

There are local councillors, candidates and activists that use social media effectively – just not enough of them…and not enough in my neck of the woods! Over recent weeks other wards in Cambridge seem to have been the Twitter battle grounds between the Lib Dems and Labour – with a couple of Tories (mainly Andy and Tim Haire) spicing things up. It was feisty but generally good-natured. It would be nice to see more of this in the future. Perhaps also the challenge is to try and use social media in a manner that complements ‘offline campaigning’ rather than having it as an alternative. Two things I want to see in the future (mentioned earlier here) are:

1) Local political parties publicising their regular meetings and opening more of them up to the public/inviting the public in

2) Local ‘Question Time’ events where people can talk/discuss/scrutinise politics rather than leaving it to the area committee format – which has its limitations for this sort of debate.

Commiserations to those who lost their seats – particularly Neil McGovern and Amanda Taylor who I’ve met on previous occasions. Congratulations to those that won their seats – particularly George and Richard Johnson who brought some energy to Twitter in the run up to the vote.

The turnout was disappointing, but I think part of that can be blamed on the weather over the past few weeks. If it were warm and sunny, I’d like to think more campaigners would have been out and about, and more people would have become aware of the elections. That’s not to say turnout isn’t a huge issue – it is. But when so many of our substantial decisions are made in London by people so far removed from the rest of us, is it any wonder why many people tend not to bother with local elections?

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2 Responses to What happens when you take your dragon to the polling station?

  1. Al (@Al__S) says:

    In Abbey, on Wednesday I had two Green councillors on the City council, and one Labour, with a Green County Councillor.
    I now (having voted for Richard) have three Labour City Councillors- Abbey had become something of a Green stronghold, but looking at the absolute voter numbers on a lower turnout most of thw lower turnout seems to have been Green, Lib Dem and Tory. Richard took 94 votes less than Caroline Hart last year. William Birkin for the Greens polled 423 votes less than Brett Hughes. Timothy Haire (Con) took 195 less votes than Craig Thomas, and Christopher Brown lost 95 votes- about the same as Labour, but from a much lower starting figure! Significanctly, the only leaflets and “you were out when we called canvassing” cards through my door were from Labour and Green; this is my second year living in the ward and the second time I’ve seen absolutely no sign of campaigning from the Lib Dems and Tories- maybe this is because I’m in an odd bit of the ward, with just a few houses seperated from the rest by the retail parks and Newmarket Road, almost part of Petersfield. But looking at the results, I’d say not…

    (Just of the off chance you’re not aware of it, Colin Rosenstiel has a superb site with historical election data for Cambridge city, and he’s updated it today: http://www.crosenstiel.webspace.virginmedia.com/camelect/index.htm

  2. Enjoyed this – some sound views and ideas to think about.

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