Opinion: You’re not from round here are you?

Some rights reserved by ztephenWas “local”, I wonder, the most overused word in the Eastleigh by-election? Of all the terms in the Lib Dem lexicon “local” is surely our favourite.

A few years ago when the party had one of its periodic embarrassments, it looked like there would have to be a by-election in Winchester. I had a week-old baby at the time and was barely out of hospital when the phone calls started – “Why don’t you stand?”, “Hampshire bred”, “You got a great result in the next door seat at the last election…”… Most of all though I was LOCAL. – The magic word that unlocks so many doors in Lib Dem selections. I was even born in Winchester – accident of birth, the Holy Grail qualification which can adorn a thousand leaflets. But then I had a little think about it. …Perhaps this “local” thing could be a tiny bit double-edged. My family’s link with Winchester actually started with my father serving a jail term in Winchester Prison.

Somehow the local bit on the blue ink letter didn’t look so good!

They say that (after porn) family history is the most popular internet pastime. If you look at the websites of many candidates, you find increasingly preposterous exercises in genealogy to prove a link to the place where they are standing. The Tory who beat Jackie Ballard in 2001 told us that his grandfather had put Taunton on the national grid in the 1940s. A friend of mine who stood in one of our great northern cities traded blows with his opponent. His local roots went back to the eighteenth century. Hers were more lateral: Mam, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, Auntie Ethel, Uncle Fred, the baby, the dog and the goldfish they are all local. So that’s all right then.

We often sneer that other parties parachute people in. How dare a southerner stand round here and how dare she not know the name of a long dead local football manager. Who cares if someone has a first in economics or if they have pioneered brain surgery as long as they are from round these parts? We don’t want outsiders round here, do we?

To make a more serious point. Is someone whose parents were Vietnamese boat people likely to build up sufficient rural roots to stand in somewhere like Berwick? Granny came over on the Windrush from the West Indies did she? Oh well, you can only ever stand in Lambeth then because you won’t have the local credentials for Dorset. Brilliant, young, female but you haven’t been a councillor round here for the last thirty years. Sling your hook then.

Could we try a little experiment with some new selection rules? Let’s have all non-local shortlists for a while and see if we can shake things up a bit. Perhaps we can find some interesting people with new perspectives on places they come to with fresh eyes.

In the meantime I am off to ancestry.com to see if I can research a few West Country forefathers – you never know when they might come in handy.

* Ruth Bright is a former councillor and parliamentary candidate. She has been a party member for 26 years.

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21 Comments

  • If local Lib Dem parties want local candidates then that’s their prerogative. You make the valid argument that they might well pick a local candidate over the best candidate but then propose a restriction that could equally prevent them getting the best candidate.

  • I refer the Hon Lady to a piece I wrote for LDV in c.2008 (prompted by the similar shenanigans at the Crewe & Nantwich byelection) entitled something like – “but Mr Gladstone, are you local enough?”

    Our obsession with localness is not good.

  • The trouble is that there’s empirical evidence (+ decades of Lib Dem campaigning experience) that shows voters prefer local candidates. See http://www.libdemvoice.org/?p=32772

    Local is what the people want. It may not be Liberal, but it is Democratic.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Mar '13 - 1:35pm

    “This is a decent town and a local seat for local people. There’s nothing for you here.”
    Sorry, couldn’t resist…

  • I think being “local” in many people’s minds means being in tune with and aware of the interests of the people they aspire to represent. After all, if you have lived in an area all or most of your life, it is more likely you will be more aware of people’s concerns than, for instance, an apparatchik who has been parachuted in from national party HQ. You will also be more committed to defending those interests when it comes to future votes that affect your constituents, plus you will avoid many of the gaffes that those not familiar with the locality might commit.

    While it clearly should not be the sole criterion for selection, I think it is only fair that it should be taken into account alongside other criteria.

  • Although it may have been true once, I doubt that it is still true that people who happen to live in the same geographical area have more in common with each other than with people who may live on the other side of the country, but share the same tastes, beliefs, and wishes for the future.
    Maybe we need non-local constituencies — or give people the same choice of which constituency they want to vote in as prospective MPs have in choosing which constituency to represent.

  • Interesting points. As a woman who’s moved where the work is for about 10 years, it does concern me that I might be cut out just because of this. Hopefully I can win over members with other aspects of my work and personality, but I think it’s right to raise the question

  • Joshua Townsley 4th Mar '13 - 3:32pm

    I think it’s more about the ability of an MP to relate to their constituents, and vice versa. While being ‘a local’ doesn’t neccessarily guarantee this, it certainly helps. This is particularly important at a time when the public’s trust in politicians is very low, and there is a justified resentment of elitism.

  • The League of Gentlemen had it right where “Local” is concerned …

  • This can get to be a big issue in villages, where farmers who have been around for generations may come into some conflict with commuters who like Louise above, “move where the work is”, and think that their wider experience also provides a valid point of view! For that reason, my village had a bit of a “clear-out” of longstanding parish councillors not too far back into the past, a bit of a commuters’ revolt.

    If we Lib Dems only support “stick-in-the-mud” candidates, we may be conveying to the electorate a measure of limitation in what we can offer them.

  • It wasn’t an obvious problem for Messrs Huhne or Clegg.

    Less flippantly of the seats we gained in 2010, several successful candidates weren’t ultra local (Wells, Eastbourne and Chippenham). Certainly all three of those had no obvious links with the area before moving there.

    All had fought at least one other completely different seat – and interestingly Wikipedia tells me that all 3 applied for Eastbourne in 2005!

  • Steve Comer 4th Mar '13 - 9:58pm

    Local doesn’t have to mean ‘born & bred’ does it? Look at the examples quoted, and others. In Bristol Stephen Williams MP is from South Wales, but came to University here, was a local Councillor for several years, and lived in the constituency. By contrast one of his Tory opponents in an earlier election bought a flat here for the duration of the long campaign, and got found out!
    In a tight contrast the local connection matters more, so in Eastleigh Mike Thornton was a good choice to defend a difficult by-election. A different story when Chris Huhne took over from David Chidgey in the previous election, but remember the majority dropped to 500 then.

  • Ruth Bright 4th Mar '13 - 11:44pm

    Thomas Long – thank you for your comment, the idea of all non-local shortlists was just tongue in cheek but I’m glad that you all seem to realise what I’m getting at.

    Crewegwyn – sorry I missed your article, I agree that the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a low point, didn’t the Tory candidate get lambasted somewhere for running the New York marathon (NOT LOCAL!)?

    Caracatus – thanks for the invitation. I have given birth twice in Basingstoke Hospital that’s pretty local!!

    Louise – I wish you every success, Let’s hope things have moved on a bit for candidates of your generation.

    Hywel – interesting examples but I still think we field far fewer “outsiders” than other parties and that ultimately that is to our detriment.

  • Louise Shaw Interesting points. As a woman who’s moved where the work is for about 10 years, it does concern me that I might be cut out just because of this. Hopefully I can win over members with other aspects of my work and personality, but I think it’s right to raise the question

    I would say the reverse. As you have a legitimate stake in the lifestyle and industries of several different places, you could be a good candidate to represent any of them – much better than someone parachuted in from Labour HQ who can’t find it on the map until they decide to go for selection.

  • Lorna Dupre 5th Mar '13 - 10:20am

    I do sometimes wonder whether we should do away with costly elections and just use a ruler to work out which candidate lives closest to the polling station and declare them the automatic winner.

  • Charles Beaumont 5th Mar '13 - 1:02pm

    I expect that the real issue here is the fairly small number of really good candidates. As the Lib Dems are only competitive in a small number of seats that requires quite a lot of cannon fodder willing to stand in hopeless elections (I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t run in every seat, jsut observing that it’s a tough business). I think a really good candidate will get selected because they have made the effort at hustings and before and after. If two really strong candidates go head to head, the local one will probably win. But that makes sense because the voters prefer local.

  • “Hywel – interesting examples but I still think we field far fewer “outsiders” than other parties and that ultimately that is to our detriment.”

    Possibly – but you need to come up with some evidence. There will always be a bias to localish candidates from simple practicalities like people not wanting to relocate to the other end of the country for a marginal seat and people local to the seat having the edge in selections through simply knowing more people.

    Just thinking round our target seats in the NW last time:
    Wavertree – Colin Eldridge (Liverpool Cllr for a few years but originally from Newbury via Somerset IIRC)
    Westmoreland & Lonsdale – Tim wasn’t local to there before selection
    Rochdale – Paul Rowen – long standing Rochdale Cllr (but previously selected the non local Liz Lynne)
    Burnley – Gordon BIrtwistle (Ok I’ll give you that one!)
    Oldham East – Elwyn Watkins former Rochdale Cllr so outside the consitutency but localish
    Warrington South – I don’t know anything about Jo Crotty’s local credentials or otherwise
    Withington – John Leech a long standing Cllr
    Cheadle – Mark Hunter pretty local – despite what the Tories said at his by-election.
    Hazel Grove – Andrew was the candidate in Chester in 87 and a Cllr on Cheshire CC

  • Ruth Bright 5th Mar '13 - 7:09pm

    Hywel I don’t need to come up with evidence I was quite clear that this is just an impression I have which rings true from my own experience but nothing more. If all electoral races boil down to a ” parochialer than thou” bidding war it is dangerous because policy positions are left unexplored and a UKIP, BNP or other unsavoury candidate with more local credentials could beat us at our own game.

    The voters might prefer local candidates but it’s possible that in most places they prefer “safe”candidates or white candidates or good-looking candidates or heterosexual candidates too, Is that OK or do we try to lead the way by putting a more diverse range of people forward?

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