Sunday, 16 July 2017

Elections and things

It's been a while since I've posted anything new here - I've been pretty tied up with the practicalities of elections and things over the past few months. After fighting an ultimately unsuccessful council election campaign (more of that in a moment), unexpectedly having a general election dropped on us was not exactly fun - even more so, since I hadn't anticipated also being a candidate at said election. Still, that's how things go - I'm just going to use this post as a general ramble of my thoughts about those elections, and where we now find ourselves.

In a strongly Labour region, being a Lib Dem activist and candidate isn't always the easiest of tasks, and there are no guarantees of success even if you work hard over a long period. That's fine by me, though - politics for me has never been about being the most popular or successful, as much as I'd like a bit of success to allow us to get on with doing the things that we think should be done in the way that we think they should be done. I guess on one level it might sound strange, but the 'popularity contest' of elections has never made me feel that I just ought to be saying what I think would be most popular. I think that you have to be true to yourself and what you believe to be right.

It's also never been about advancing myself personally, or joining the party that I think will give me the best chance of getting elected. Let's face it, as Tim Farron pointed out in a conference speech a while back, joining the Lib Dems was never going to be a smart career move! I'm quite comfortable with that - I'd rather lose standing up for what I believe in than win on the basis of something I don't believe.

For me it's all about running what you believe up the flagpole to see who salutes, so to speak. Of course, in putting your ideas forward you should present them in a way that persuades people, particularly broadly like-minded people, that they are good ideas - that should go without saying. That's about presentation, though, not simply about following the crowd and repeating whatever you think they want to hear in the hope of winning their votes. You'll never persuade everyone, and I don't think you should ever even try - the breadth of political opinion among the public means that you would inevitably be compromised to such an extent that the original core ideas would have disappeared completely. Democracy is about choices, and from the point of view of candidates and parties I think it's about offering distinct options for the electorate to choose between. That doesn't mean offering nothing but bland platitudes in the hope that nobody notices - you have to nail your colours firmly to the mast, and accept that some people (maybe sometimes many people, and maybe sometimes most people) won't like them.

You also have to accept that you aren't ever in full control of your own destiny as a candidate - ultimately, it's all in the hands of the voters. Hard work makes a difference, of course, but it doesn't isolate you from existing prevailing views, unexpected new situations, or national events and campaigns. You have to try your best to get your message across, but everyone else is likely to be doing the same (and in many cases they may well have greater and more friendly media coverage, greater resources, and so on). You can only do what you can do, and I think you have to be philosophical about things not working out as you'd hoped (as well as being honest with yourself, and learning the lessons of the things that you could have done better).

Without going into too much boring detail about local election issues here, I was standing in a large ward that I'd been trying to do my bit in for about three years with regular focus leaflets (the only such leaflets locally - there were no regular communications from councillors or other parties/activists), regular door knocking sessions and surveying, dealing with casework issues for people, and so on. There was no record of Lib Dem activity in the ward, and all of the Lib Dem seats on the council had been lost in 2012 so we had no sitting councillors to cite good news stories from.

In the recent past it had really been a barely contested ward in terms of activity on the ground, with about 6 candidates for the 3 seats. This time, though, local circumstances changed significantly - with de-selections of sitting councillors who stood again as independents, a retirement of another popular local candidate, the sitting party putting up new candidates, and a rise in activity from another party locally, and an independent who was fairly well known locally (and associated with a loose collection of an independent campaign across the council area), we ended up with 11 candidates for 3 seats. Not only that, but they were 11 candidates who were all out campaigning pretty hard during the election period. As a single candidate from a currently 'unfashionable' party on my own in a three seat ward up against three teams of three it was always going to be difficult, and I got swamped by bigger campaigns.

Having said that, of course, my own campaign wasn't perfect, and I'm not going to claim that it was - I'm not going to ignore lessons that need to be learned by myself and the local party (and we have many lessons to learn from other wards too, of course). Even so, while for some time in advance it was a target ward that looked reasonably hopeful, the circumstances at the time of the election (not just those I've mentioned, though they were complicated enough - there were other large local issues in the ward (particularly surrounding a major new development issue) that suddenly appeared to make the whole thing more complicated anyway) I think made it a whole different ball game. That's fine, though - again, you have to be philosophical about such things.

Overall, despite not having a good result personally, I do think of that election being something of a success locally, and not just for the party. We did win one seat back on the council in another ward (and very strongly so), giving us a voice in the chamber for the first time in 5 years. We had more candidates than last time around - we were hoping for a few more than we ultimately ended up with, but it still shows some improvement on local activity, and that is always a good thing.

In my own ward, the success was that it really felt like an election for the first time in any election since I've been living in the area. There were people out in the streets from various groups and parties knocking doors and delivering leaflets, and genuinely working the ground locally. OK, that swamped me out in the end, but that's fine - in a very real sense local democracy was the winner, even if I wasn't. That is how local politics should always be, of course, and it might seem strange to some that it isn't - the reality in some places, particularly in 'heartlands', is that local democracy on the ground is virtually dead. As an example, in a neighbouring 3 member ward, 3 candidates from the dominant party were elected entirely unopposed (and that wasn't the only such ward in the area). Here, though, we had a real local election campaign, and that is huge. If my own work over the previous years and during the campaign contributed in some small way to that happening, then I'm certainly satisfied with that as something of a personal success too.

So that was the local election - we ended up with a brand new group of 3 councillors from 2 different parties who actually had to work hard to get there. That's a great result for democracy, and hopefully for the future of the community - I genuinely wish them every success. We may have different ideological backgrounds, but at the local level I know they all variously share some of my concerns about the area and the way things have gone over recent years at council level. It's all about supporting the local area and the local community, and giving them the support that they deserve over the coming years, and I sincerely hope that by the time the next election comes around their record of outstanding service to the community has been one that is unassailable. That might sound a little odd, but real success for the community is more important to me than mere party politics. I'm certainly not going to start petty party politicking for the sake of it, or hoping that our new councillors fail so that I or other Lib Dems can get elected in future, or just because they won and I didn't. Of course, they know I'm still around, and they know I'll still be keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to do my bit, but I genuinely hope what I'm seeing and hearing is that the new councillors are doing a great job for us.

So then we come to the unexpected general election, being dropped on us at short notice in the middle of the local election campaign. That probably didn't help the local campaigns either, and that may have been part of the idea of doing it. Indeed, if I were a cynical person I might be tempted to point out that the party who called it were the one party with virtually unlimited financial resources to throw at a general election campaign when most others would just have spent a great deal of what they had on local election campaigns. Perhaps I am that cynical. Perhaps the Conservative Party are too. Not for me to judge, really - I'll leave that to others to consider, and to consider what the implications of that are for our democratic system as it stands.

The election was unexpected (I had privately thought that there might by one this year, but if it were going to happen I'd expected it to happen around October/November sort of time), and so were the circumstances that meant I became the candidate. A combination of unexpected issues, but I was proud to be the one flying the flag local for Liberal Democracy. Of course, while knowing that it is always in the hands of the electorate and that any candidate can win, my own expectations of inevitable victory were tempered with the certain knowledge of the scale of mountain to be climbed!

I've not been active in politics for that long, really - I joined the party in 2010, and hadn't previously been more than a 'normal' voter and occasional party supporter. I remember something of the public perception of politics and political parties from the outside, and some of the misunderstandings about what a big election means for parties and the people within them. In that context, I'm reasonably satisfied about the job that we did locally, though there is much more I would like to be able to do in future of course.

One of the regular social media comments during a campaign, and particularly a short 'snap' election campaign, as an example of that difference between perception and reality, is 'well nobody has been to knock on my door, so obviously they don't care about my vote'. For perfectly understandable reasons, many people don't grasp just how time consuming such activities are, and just how limited the resources of the political parties are for doing them. As well as not understanding the sheer scale of the task of covering an entire constituency, I suspect many think of 'party machines' as great big things, with troops of people ready to get out and about and talk to everyone - as anyone in a political party (particularly a smaller party in a 'heartland' area) knows, that really isn't the case. To put a little meat on those bones, I reckon that on average two people can knock about 50 doors in an hour (assuming that nobody is home at two thirds or more of addresses). In this constituency there are, I believe, well over 30,000 doors to knock - in this general election, getting around that would have meant knocking something like 5 or 6 thousand doors a week. Those two people would have been knocking solidly for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. OK, so having more than two people obviously helps, but that would mean having a team of people willing and able to give up their jobs and lives full time for the duration of the campaign. The reality is that there aren't enough people able to do that to allow any party, and especially any smaller party locally, to get to every door during an election campaign (which is why it's so important to knock doors between election campaigns, of course, something that not enough parties tend to do).

That's just one example of reality not matching common voter expectations, and that's before we even start to talk about money. Just sending one undressed leaflet to every house in a constituency via the single 'freepost' option (the postage is free, but not the printing) that every candidate gets during an election is likely to have a minimum cost approaching £1,000 - this stuff ain't cheap, and most parties have limited resources. This is especially true when a party isn't expected to come close to winning in a particular seat - it's important for every party to do what it can everywhere, and give people the democratic option of voting for them, but parties obviously need to target their resources to win the seats where they can win. This, as I am sure I have said before, is one of the big problems with our frankly stupid 'first past the post' electoral system.

That was a bit of a tangent there, but the relevance is that obviously I didn't knock every door during the campaign - it just wasn't possible. Everyone should have had a leaflet, but mostly I had to concentrate on running a social media campaign, and to that extent I felt the campaign went reasonably well locally considering local context of it being a 'heartland' seat for another party, and the wider context of what was going on nationally in an election where all apart from the 'big 2' parties were getting very heavily squeezed everywhere. I obviously have lessons to learn for the future about which bits of that seemed to work better or less well than others, and it all adds to the 'things to think about' column (which is a good thing). Again, it wasn't 'successful' for me, but I had a pretty good idea of how things stood, so again being philosophical about it all has to be the order of the day. I was proud to fly the flag and stand up for what I believe, and I'm happy to have been able to give local people the option of voting for the Liberal Democrats.

The only frustration for me, really, was in seeing second place go to a candidate who, as far as I could see, hadn't even set foot in the constituency or done any campaigning of any sort at all (leaflets, social media, etc., etc.). This was a purely 'national' vote, and a reminder that hard work locally (or lack of it) doesn't always equate to votes (or lack thereof). While other candidates were doing what they could in knocking doors, social media campaigning, and so on, and turning up to the 'Facebook live' hustings that was held, one candidate got thousands of votes and came second (not their traditional place) even though they did pretty much nothing at all, and didn't even bother to turn up to the count. It's not for me to judge how people choose to cast their votes, of course, but it should give people something to think about.

A word about that 'Facebook live' hustings. That was a new thing, obviously, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Not only did it give opportunity for people to see what the candidates had to say without having to turn out to where there were speaking (and it's often the same people who turn out to such hustings every time, and a number of them are actually 'activists' of some kind there to support their chosen candidate anyway), but the lack of audience in the room I think actually helped (they could, and did, ask questions live via facebook, in addition to those that had been chosen by the chair from previous facebook posts). It was very, very well chaired by a local journalist (one of those who didn't see it as her role to get directly involved in the debate, but to simply make sure every candidate got their fair turn to make their point - that's how it should be), and the lack of 'noises off' (often, as I said, provided by 'activists' who had their own pro/anti candidate agendas) allowed everyone the opportunity to give their answers and debate each others answers in a much more even and open way. Watching it back later, it seemed to me that it meant each candidate was able to put across their own distinctive points and vision without other people in the room 'leading' the audience as a whole or trying to 'big up' their candidate or 'shout down' their opponents. That, I think, is a better way for voters to be presented with the alternatives than the usual 'bearpit' atmosphere.

Overall, the campaign was an enjoyable and constructive one all round between the candidates (those who bothered to get involved, of course!). It seemed to me to be held in good spirit (and I should say here, to be fair, that all of the candidates were civil and even friendly towards each other on a personal level generally throughout the campaign), and I saw no signs of anything nasty or personal, which is as it should be. We can be passionate about our own beliefs and questioning of others without it becoming a bun fight or a vicious verbal assault against another person who happens to believe something different (even if those differences are pretty stark at times). I will also say, as with the local election, that I wish the successful candidate well in representing the constituency and our communities - as much as I disagree with him about some things, of course, I hope he will serve the people well. We'll disagree about the best way forward, no doubt, and we'll still be there to oppose electorally next time around, and I'm sure we'll be saying things between now and then too, but ultimately I don't believe that it's in any way right to hope that my community lives for years with poor representation just so that my party can do better in elections. That's not what politics should be about at all - it's about wanting to make things better for people, not about wanting to 'get one over on the other side' at all costs.

So to summarise the two election campaigns locally for me, both were unsuccessful in electoral terms of course, but both were successful in other ways, and give much  to think about for myself and the local party going forwards. Beyond that, in the grander scheme of national politics, the party has both reasons to be positive and lessons to learn, as always. I'm not going to go into details here of assessing everything that's happened and is happening in and around the Liberal Democrats in the inevitably somewhat fraught and frantic immediate election and post-election periods, but there are obviously thing I'm happy about and things I'm less happy about, and some things I think we need to be thinking about - I'll discuss those at the proper time and in the proper context, of course. The important thing for now is that we've stood proudly and flown our flag, and that we must and will continue to do so, even if we don't always win, and even though it isn't always easy (or hugely popular). That's what democracy is all about.

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