Will local issues be even bigger factors in the 2015 general election?

Summary

With the three main parties facing competition from beyond each other in an era of low trust in party politics, will this – combined with continued growth in social media use mean candidates having to raise their personal profiles over that of the parties they are standing for?

On the latter question, quality of internet connection is a significant contributing factor. Step outside of Cambridge and a few miles out it’s not to hard to find a 3G ‘not spot’ where you can’t access the internet from your mobile. Something perhaps us city dwellers take for granted.

‘A good old-fashioned political sex scandal! It’s just like the good old days of the mid 1990s!’

…was my initial reaction to the tribulations of former minister Brooks Newmark. Yet very quickly a number of legally-aware bloggers and tweeters started indicating that all was not well – and the newspaper concerned could find themselves in serious trouble. The blogpost at http://barristerblogger.com/2014/09/28/tricked-sex-fraud-sunday-mirrors-sting-brookes-newmark-criminal/ by Matthew Scott is a superb example of legal blogging – analysing an incident through the lens of the law rather than through the lens of media-driven ‘public morality’.

‘And political betrayal double-bill too!’

This being the cases of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – both of whom defected from the Conservatives to UKIP. Older readers might remember the defections of George Gardiner from the Tories to The Referendum Party following his deselection in 1997, or Alan Howarth defecting from the Tories to Labour in the mid-1990s. The amount of teamwork and volunteer hours it requires for an individual to become first a candidate, and then a victor in an election campaign, is significant. Therefore to defect from one party to another inevitably means kicking lots of sand in the faces of people who made significant sacrifices for you – many of whom will be personal friends and trusted advisers.

What makes these betrayals so fascinating for politics watchers is that it uncovers emotional human sides to politics that are all too often crushed under the party and media machine. Ignore the official responses from senior party members, it’s the responses from close political friends (or ex-friends), the constituency parties and the volunteers that are most likely to reveal the raw emotions – as Mark Reckless seems to have found out here.

Trouble in Labour’s Scottish heartlands

Unlike the mid-1990s when the Tories were tearing themselves to pieces over Europe like the are today, Labour are not approaching the 2015 general election from the position of strength that perhaps they could – or should be. Furthermore, the implosion of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in local government in a number of towns and cities, you have the rise of ‘one party councils’ such as Knowsley. The issue here is of scrutiny and accountability – something that has also been discussed inside Labour circles following Rotherham.

As Ed Miliband said in an interview at his party conference, Labour are seeking to return to office after one term in opposition – something he said had not been done before. But did the conference give signs that here was a PM and a government-in-waiting?

“A flat and uninspiring conference in Manchester had none of the tingle of a party striding confidently towards power

 One member of the shadow cabinet, who has had the memo from Ed Balls about no unfunded spending commitments, groaned: “We weren’t allowed to say anything.””

So said Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer.

This contrasts with the ‘UKIP-U-turn on the luxury goods tax policy – which other parties would probably have got a roasting from the media had they done this.

“I am very happy to give the freedom to our spokesmen and spokeswomen to float ideas but I’m pretty certain that while I’m leader that will not be in our manifesto,” [Farage] said in an interview with BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

…quoting The Independent on Sunday. To what extent do people want ideas floated at this stage of the electoral cycle vs having a solid nailed-down manifesto?

Party conferences not buzzing and not full?

I’ve just finished watching footage on BBC Parliament of William Hague’s keynote speech – his last in frontline politics before he retires. What surprised me was that the hall was by no means full. Not only that, the hall was much smaller compared to the conferences of the 1980s & 1990s. This was followed by footage of Mark Reckless MP announcing to a celebratory hall of UKIP activists he was quitting the Tories for UKIP. Whatever you think of the policies and politicians of both parties, the contrast in terms of the atmosphere coming through on the TV was marked. One ovation was stage-managed and robotic, the other being an uncontrolled release of energy followed by football-stadium-style chanting.

 

Are the central offices of the big three parties paralysed by fear?

One of the No campaign’s slogans: “It’s not worth the risk” reflected a media narrative of ‘safety first’. What might seem to a policy expert as a reasonable judgement call does not necessarily make the best campaigning slogan.

Contrasting hope vs fear? Pic via @ElisabethJane
Contrasting hope vs fear? Pic via @ElisabethJane

 

This contrasts with the Yes campaign in Scotland, which although did not succeed, seems to have unleashed a wave of political energy if the increases in SNP and Scottish Green Party membership is to be believed.

Political leaders lacking in authenticity? Room for local candidates to shine?

This was the conclusion of an Ipsos-Mori study for MumsNet. Does this indicate candidates will be less able to rely upon party branding from their central offices and have to do more to to build their personal brands and personal relationships with constituents? If so, how?

In Cambridge, we know that the candidates for the five biggest parties in England will be:

  • Lib Dems: Dr Julian Huppert MP
  • Conservatives: Ms Chamali Fernando
  • Labour: Mr Daniel Zeichner
  • Greens: Dr Rupert Read
  • UKIP: Mr Patrick O’Flynn MEP

The results from 2010 are here. My analysis post-May 2014 elections, and on who needs to do what, is here. Details of Michael Ashcroft’s detailed polling of Cambridge for the end of September 2014 is here. Note Pg8 and who respondents said they definitely would not vote for. All five candidates are active on social media – but I still think Cambridge is too close to call between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Also note that in the recent Iraq air strikes vote, Julian rebelled against the party whip and voted against the Coalition, and Daniel Zeichner also went against his party’s policy too. Opposition to the 2003 war within the local Labour party was particularly strong – don’t expect it to have been a case of one local politician following another. Both Julian and Daniel consulted people across the city first. Will we see the growing influence of local political ‘microclimates’ making Westminster that little bit more unpredictable?

Going beyond the ‘glum councillor in the local paper’ look

Remember the tumblr account ‘glum councillors’? It’s gone dormant now, but it used to catalogue pictures of local councillors and politicians pointing at bad stuff like potholes and broken fences while looking miserable. Perhaps we’ve got FixMyStreet to bypass things. That’s not to say these things are trivial or not worth bothering about. If it’s your car that’s taking a battering because of potholes down your road, or if it’s your garden that is being broken into as a result of broken fences, these things are very serious indeed. But what’s the best method of keeping residents updated on repairs and correspondence while at the same time inspiring the electorate to get involved in local democracy?

‘Have you had your media training?’

The lack of formal media training has been a reason a couple of people who are party activists or in campaign groups have declined to be filmed by me locally. For me, that reflects the uncertainties many people and institutions have with non-mainstream media. At the same time, the local parties that jump first and familiarise themselves early with digital video will be the ones with the head start. We saw this with the Scottish Independence referendum. The Yes campaign ran rings around the No campaign with social media. The referendum aside, the energy created by how many activists using social media created is something that seems to be going far beyond the referendum campaign itself – one that could well have a longer term impact on how Scotland does politics.

In the 2015 general election, I think there will be a number of constituencies where digital video will come into its own. I reckon it’ll be due to small but very competent groups of digital enthusiasts bypassing the mainstream media and creating their own content; content that is interesting, relevant and local. It won’t have the broadcast slickness of the BBC. But the tools and skills that some have means the quality will be good enough to have an impact.

‘What impact will it have?’

I don’t think you’ll be seeing ‘It woz soshall meejah wot wun it!’ headlines. The impact is much more likely to be below the radar – for example individuals who are already sympathisers to individual parties becoming mobile as a result of seeing something that they can make a difference with. For example notifying people that they are having a neighbourhood stall, or having a visiting national politician coming to town.

Stop hiding your events, actions and visiting politicians!!!

The three mainstream parties are the worst at hiding the presence of national politicians visiting – frightened that they will be ambushed by political opponents. If national politicians are that good and that competent, they’d take such political ambushes in their stride. Unfortunately, what we have are well-hidden visits that are suddenly sprung upon an unsuspecting population. The first thing people find out about the visit of a senior politician is when they hear it in the news that evening or the following day.

At a simple level, one of the best things local parties can do is to give residents sufficient advance notice of when and where they are going to be campaigning, and when senior party politicians are going to be visiting. Give people time to consider and prepare questions to put to your activists and politicians. Take it as a given that your opponents will be campaigning around the same time as you. If your candidates and policies are sound enough, they will stand up to scrutiny both from your opponents and the electorate.

Furthermore, I think there’s a huge opportunity for local parties to open up some of their meetings and gatherings to the general public. I remain surprised that we don’t see regularly scheduled party meetings that are open to members of the public. Which are the local parties that will combine offline meetings with social media conversations to encourage people to get more involved in local democracy?

Why does this all matter?

Governance and oversight on who makes the laws and on how taxpayers’ money is spent. In a nutshell. As Julian Huppert said at our Be the change – Cambridge conversations cafe, the decisions are made by those that turn up. In recent decades, the ability of citizens to oversee and scrutinise decisions has been diminished – not least by the fragmentation, outsourcing and privatisation of public services. How can people make informed decisions if they don’t know how institutions work, let alone know how they can influence them and make their voices heard?

2 thoughts on “Will local issues be even bigger factors in the 2015 general election?

  1. Perhaps rather than doing a better job of announcing their visits, senior Politicians could stop visiting altogether and leave local candidates to win or lose on their own merits. This would then increase the prospects for Independent candidates to participate (and reduce the cost of elections nationally)

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