Breaking the vicious circle of safe seats and low turnout


Given the links between low turnout and safe seats, how/where do you start in trying to break the vicious circle?

This stems from comments by Cllrs Carina O’Reilly and Peter Roberts to my previous blogpost – see them here. The substance of what they discussed is in this post by Phil Rodgers, looking at turnout patterns in Cambridge.

Now, there are are a number of really basic ‘non-political’ things that can have an impact on turnout. A sunny or rainy day for example. Hence the idiotic decision to have the PCC elections in November. Cold, dark, rainy…who’d want to go out and vote in that weather?Given my attempts at increasing the number of informed votes cast, my assumption is that people who have corresponded with candidates and councillors over time might have a greater incentive to vote.

What to do in a safe Labour seat?

From a purely party-political perspective, the last thing in the world the local Labour party wants is an alternative party becoming active in one of their safe wards. Why should they? It means more work, effort and expense on their part. I make the same assumption in the wards south of me in South Cambridgeshire – which is safe-as-houses Tory-land. This is the constituency that has Andrew Lansley as their MP – which might come as a shock to NHS-supporters of this blog.

In the grand scheme of things, Carina is right: in order to raise turnout, there needs to be some real competition between parties/candidates. Without it, the incumbent party has little incentive to go beyond its core vote that turns out every time – squishing the hopes of any opposition party that otherwise struggles to make any impact. There’s only so many times people are willing to put in the work for defeat-after-defeat. It becomes demoralising after a while.

‘The Tories need representation on Cambridge City Council – just not this ward!’

I remember this being said or tweeted by someone a few years ago. From a democratic pluralist perspective, it doesn’t feel right somehow that the party that came second in the 2010 general election with over 10,000 votes only has one councillor on the city council. The reason for this is the Conservative vote is spread across the city (as with The Greens currently) rather than concentrated in a handful of wards. As I’ve also stated previously, I think it would benefit the council in terms of scrutiny to have representation from The Greens and the Conservatives on Cambridge City Council. But both parties have to earn it.

So…where does this leave us in the safe wards?

This is the problem for the local parties. Given where we are in the political cycle, and recent electoral history locally & nationally, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are not ‘on the up’. New activists inevitably would be expected to defend the policies of their parties in office. This is always a difficult starting point. Far easier to motivate people when in opposition ‘to get the other lot out and to change stuff’ rather than selling your party as ‘the change’ when you’ve been in office for so long.

Are the posters having any impact?

24 hours after putting them up, The Green Party seem to have had two additional ‘likes’ on Facebook, but otherwise not a single post, question, tweet or follower on any of their sites. Five posters at five bus stops – two of the five being frequently-used stops by young people. (The posters look like this). It’ll be interesting to see if there is any shift at by the end of the week.

Puffles failing to incentivise active campaigning by other parties in Coleridge

This was one of the things I wanted Puffles’ presence on the ballot paper to have some impact on: to encourage the other parties to do more than field paper candidates. Having Puffles on the ballot paper means that there is now a small chance that the other parties might get fewer votes than a dragon fairy in this ward. Remember the Liberal Democrats only got 147 votes last time around. While personally I think Puffles will be lucky to get out of single figures – ie those that signed the nomination forms & no one else, electorally Puffles is an unknown.

As far as social and digital media is concerned, the impact of Puffles has been minimal as far as responses, fans and followers locally are concerned. This for me is just as much a reflection of the silo nature of some of our online communities (ie they are theme-specific rather than specific to a local area) as it is the toxic environment around politics generally. On the other hand, Puffles as a candidate has had far more local media coverage than any of the other individual candidates on this side of town. But to what extent will that media coverage turn into votes vs the other opposition parties?

Breaking that vicious circle

This is where anyone wanting to do this has to be in it for the long haul. One election campaign won’t do much other than raise awareness of your presence. For most of the parties, their brands already do this – hence for them everything else will be additional to this. Everything Puffles does is about raising Puffles’ presence. Hence why I reckon Puffles will come last in the contest – not that I’m actually campaigning for votes.

The challenge for other parties – whether The Greens and The Conservatives in Cambridge, or Labour in South Cambridgeshire – is planning long term campaigns in places where they have little presence. That means taking the hits of failure – such as Labour in Eastleigh – note the Labour candidate’s comments about his experience of campaigning. Why would anyone want to put themselves through the mill of that if they stood no realistic short term chance of winning?

A failure of the political commons?

It’s like with the attempts to implement Leveson, or perhaps party funding. No one wants to give up their tactical advantage, even though they know the current system isn’t working for the country as a whole. Hence the exchange between former Cambridgeshire County Councillor Shona Johnstone and local resident Cab Davison

Over time, my instinct is that greater use of social media will make it more difficult for the ‘catch all’ sweeping conclusions as people become more aware of local area-specific issues that can go against national trends. We saw a glimpse of this in the 2010 general election where some seats stubbornly held out against the swing towards the Conservatives.

“So…will South Cambridge remain quiet politically for the foreseeable future?”


One of the other reasons for this is that what I’m doing does not synchronise with what any of the other parties are doing here locally. At the same time, what I have in the pipeline in terms of future activities and actions goes far beyond party politics. It’ll be an interesting autumn!


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