What are your minimum expectations of political parties and candidates standing for election in your neighbourhood?

Several of you got me thinking after reporting that you had not received any election material from candidates and parties standing for public office where you live

These are just four of them – there are many more.

Before continuing, there are three very important things to account for with the 2021 Local Elections.

  1. The CoronaVirus Pandemic meant that the previous year’s local elections had to be postponed until the following year. The last time local elections were postponed was during war time.
  2. The continued restrictions and risks have meant that far fewer volunteers have been willing and able to do the all-important leafleting for parties. In Cambridge, local students have significantly boosted the leafleting operations of local parties – but this year many have stayed at home, taking their classes remotely
  3. The ability for local community and campaign groups to organise hustings and public debates has been significantly curtailed. With the Mayoral elections being featured prominently in the broadcast media, the incentive has been for campaign groups to work together to host online hustings for the mayoral elections only.

At the same time, the political parties have been under huge pressure (from each other) to fill as many of the vacant candidacies as possible. Normally in Cambridge there is one election per year. Either it’s one third of Cambridge City Council – so 14 wards with one of their three ward councillors up at a time, or the County Council once every four years. This year, due to boundary changes at the city level, all city seats are now up for election. That’s 42 seats – and 42 individual candidates that parties needed to find. On top of that, there were 12 County seats to add to that. In several cases, some parties have had candidates standing in the same or similar wards for both city and county seats. Or “double-hatting” as it is sometimes called.

The logistical challenge of organising a campaign in a global pandemic

For the Cambridge City Council elections, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and The Greens stood full slates of candidates. The Conservatives were just one candidate short of joining them – in West Chesterton. The first three parties produced party manifestos. The Conservatives did not – something I criticised them for in an earlier blogpost. My point being that if they are going to go to all that effort to fill the slots with candidates, does it not make sense to have something that shows the voters what their united platform is? Furthermore, they did not update their website showing the list of their candidates.

Paper candidates – what is the point?

The reasons I can think of:

  1. To save face vs other political parties and to show ‘on paper’ that a local party is willing and able to put up a candidate anywhere in the city
  2. To increase the tally of votes across the city, so that when it comes to summing up the total number of votes the final number looks reasonable
  3. To establish what the baseline is in a ward/division where no leafleting or campaigning is done – i.e.establishing your core vote that will turnout come what may.

Back in late 2012, the Cambridge Green Party fell back significantly from a high point (as I wrote in this blogpost at the time) in the run up to the 2010 General Election, when they polled nearly 4,000 votes, and from when they held three of the four seats in Abbey Ward between 2008-11. Out of the three former councillors, two passed away and one switched to Labour before moving out of the city. The two late former councillors, Margaret Wright was the woman who was one of the pioneering figures in the Cambridge Environmental Scene, finally getting elected after many years standing unsuccessfully. You can read Margaret’s obituary here. A few years later, Simon Sedgwick-Jell also passed away. He was a former Labour group leader at The Guildhall, and later the Leader of Cambridge City Council, bringing in the much-lampooned-at-the-time Green Bike Scheme in 1992/93. It turned out he was just years ahead of his time, and that had he had support from Central Government, the ‘Boris Bikes’ could have started in Cambridge 15-20 years before. You can read Simon’s obituary here.

Laser-like focus on target seats by opposition parties in the face of a campaigning machine from the governing party. But has the rest of the city missed out on genuine ward-level contests?

Focusing on just the city alone, the Cambridge Labour Party campaign machine online at least has been utterly relentless. Short, sharp videos based on local issues, local policies, and local achievements coming out every other day featuring different party figures. Professionally-themed info-graphics-style images covering past policy achievements combined with linked future policy proposals, all based on a very intense long term programme of community outreach across the city. A significant amount of work and effort to get all of that put together. This has been combined with a long term canvassing effort with leaflets, posters, boards, and even election-day door-knocks.

Their main opponents – the Liberal Democrats, launched slightly earlier than Labour. With a number of experienced councillors standing down after many years service, there has been some curious anticipation from us “Guildhall Groupies” (as I was pejoratively labelled almost a decade ago by a former Labour councillor!) as to who these new candidates and potential councillors might be. Not least because when you get that level of turnover it inevitably affects the group dynamic. They got the all-important introduction videos done, but were perhaps not able to sustain the relentless rate that the governing party has been able to produce.

The Green Party took the decision to target Abbey Ward a few years ago, so this year’s result between a competent group of Labour candidates and activists versus a re-energised Green Party will be interesting to see. For me, their acid test was whether they could fill a full slate of candidates. That they have over 40 different people standing for them at both city and county council elections in one go is a huge achievement in itself. They have also established a weekly comment slot alongside Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the Cambridge News when the publication asks a representative from each of the political parties to comment on a contemporary political issue. Focusing on Abbey Ward has meant they’ve pulled back from previous target wards including Market Ward, where their most recent elected councillor, Oscar Gillespie won a council seat in a year when the Green Party polled nearly 10,000 votes across the city that year – turnout (and so voter numbers) boosted by the General Election on the same day.

A handful of Conservatives on Mill Road, mobilised by the furore of the Mill Road Bridge traffic control scheme has picked up support from a number of shop owners, but it remains to be seen how much of that support transfers through to the local residents in the side streets – a number of whom have welcomed the massive reduction in road traffic, reduced pollution & noise, and improved air quality. (Yeah – it’s all ended up in my part of town!)

“Who needs to do what in a post-CV19 overhaul of local democracy?”

Earlier in May 2021 I wrote:

“Local Democracy is too important to leave to the politicians”

https://cambridgetownowl.com/2021/05/03/local-democracy-is-too-important-to-leave-to-the-politicians/

I won’t repeat what I’ve suggested in that post. Instead I’ll cover what others have suggested, starting with Phil Rodgers.

A Local Democracy App!

Suggested by Ben Hatton, Cambridge’s Local Democracy Reporter based at the Cambridge News. You heard it here first!

It’s worth noting from Sam Davies MBE in Queen Edith’s Ward that anecdotally the guide produced by Chris Rand and friends for voting residents enabled voters to cast an informed vote. The Queen Edith’s Community Forum is here, and the Queen Edith’s 2021 Election Guide is here.

One of the suggestions I thought worth exploring in the earlier blogpost was on creating a single entity responsible for co-ordinating future public elections across the city. This could be an offshoot from the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services or a completely new, separate organisation that, for want of another title is The Cambridge Civic Society. Essentially the reason for their existence would be to help organise and facilitate the free and impartial flow of election guides for elections, and support the organisation of hustings and public debates across the city in support of those elections, whether from booking a hall, to selecting a trained and impartial debate chair, to ensuring that there is media representation to cover the events.

That way, everyone would start from the same starting point with an election booklet explaining the essentials, and enabling candidates to have space for a pitch, distributed to homes each ward at no expense to the candidates. From there, it would be up to the candidates and/or parties to produce & distribute any follow-up materials.

Changing the culture and attitudes of local residents and voters

How do you encourage people to move out of ‘disinterested resident’ mode to ‘active citizen’ mode?

For a start, you don’t assume that anyone who is a disinterested resident will be willing or able to become an active citizen.

Above – Engagement segmentation – how interested in community activities are the population in any society in England? From the Henley Centre for the Dept for Communities & Local Gov’t as was in 2008 –via here.

What those proportions above look like today I don’t know. But it starts to examine what sort of things people with different dispositions might be interested in getting involved with. Part of the challenge for any community organisation or local council is to identify which residents have what dispositions in order to invite them to get involved in the things that will both interest them the most and that they can get the most out of.

In terms of changing attitudes and cultures, it’s not simply a case of saying to the people I’ve quoted at the top that it is their responsibility to find out who their candidates are, do their research, and then vote – much as some of us might like them to do so anyway. Why? We made that same mistake with the Environment and Climate Change. We let corporations and their politicians supporting and representing them convince us all for far too long that the solution comes from individuals alone. *If only everyone would recycle more!* or *If only everyone would drive less!* while carrying on as normal. We now know better – hence the very deliberate targeting of institutions – not just governments, to change structures, systems, and processes – and laws.

So that means someone has to meet them half way – and/or be seen to be taking on their share of the burden. That might mean a local council part-funding a civic society organisation to create the ward-level election guides for residents. Then, in those guides you can encourage residents to take a more active part in community life by reading the guide, finding more about the candidates, coming along to any public debates, and casting an informed vote. It may also mean for political parties that they commit more resources from party HQs to the training and development of candidates. It may even be something that adult education colleges and providers start creating evening classes for – learning some of the essentials of public policy making and finding out case studies from other parts of the county, country, and beyond.

When can people start planning for this?

Monday morning.

Use the weekend to sleep of the results.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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