But Mr Gladstone, are you local enough?

It would appear that the ‘local’ credentials of the candidates proved to be something of a talking-point in the recent Henley by-election.

Certainly, in Crewe & Nantwich it was a constant theme in the election literature. The Conservatives went so far as to claim that their man was “the only local candidate” – despite the fact that he lived further from the constituency than his Lib Dem rival, and that one of the ‘fringe’ candidates had lived all his life in Crewe! But, as a rather more experienced campaigner put it to me – with a shrug of his shoulders – there is no legal definition of the term ‘local’.

Now I can fully understand that ‘being local’ is a plus. As an agent I have enthusiastically produced Focus newsletters complete with maps highlighting the fact that our candidates live in the ward, with a great big X to mark the spot, and a sometimes vaguely-directed arrow to indicate that the Labour/ Tory rival lives “somewhere, out there, far away”. And when our candidate doesn’t live in the ward, well I’ve emphasised their other virtues.

But I have never felt the need to claim a local residency where one doesn’t exist, nor do I see the need or purpose to elevate ‘localness’ into the prime – and it sometimes seems the only – necessary qualification for elected office. I was closely linked to the Crewe & Nantwich campaign, and totally comfortable with the fact that our candidate lived in a neighbouring constituency, served on a neighbouring local authority, and had a realistic – but not necessarily detailed – knowledge of our local issues. And I viewed with a mixture of dismay and anger Tory attempts to portray her – “a councillor from the West Midlands” – as though she was a stranger from distant Worcestershire or Warwickshire!

But there is a deeper issue. Yes, campaigning to preserve the Snodbury Minor post office may be important, and the petition to reinstate the bus service to Flagfold, or to have traffic calming on the B5678. But for goodness sake we are electing a member to what is still supposed to be the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

A quick flick through a daily paper today produced the following current issues:

* significant increase in cocaine smuggling into Britain via Venezuala;
* an IPCC report on the failure of police to protect a woman subsequently killed by a murderer released on licence;
* personal savings hit a 50-year low;
* reductions in some key NHS services (eg, elderly and mental health care) to focus on target-driven areas;
* cancer appointments being cancelled at random because of computer system glitches;
* families of service personnel killed in Nimrod accident seek to sue;
* gun crime – evidence of under-reporting;
* crisis in childhood diabetes services;
* dispute over West Shetland gasfield development.

It crosses my mind that I would quite like an MP who can think intelligently about issues like this, and perhaps make a telling contribution to decision-making. Is it not possible that such abilities might be more important attributes than ‘local’ credentials?

I am not suggesting that our election literature should be transformed into detailed manifestos of every conceivable matter of public policy. I can accept that “Lib Dems speak out on West Shetland gasfield issue” probably wouldn’t be a huge vote-winner in Henley. But I cannot help feeling that a positive account of Mr Kearney’s experience in the charitable sector, or of Mrs Shenton’s track record in issues of pensions protection, would have been more persuasive than this seeming obsession with the golden calf of ‘localness’.

* Gwyn Griffiths has been a Liberal and Liberal Democrat Borough Councillor for the Delamere Ward of Crewe since 1983. He has never lived in the ward.

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17 Comments

  • David Morton 30th Jun '08 - 2:39pm

    Excellent Points but from a Lib Dem perspective have we being hoist by our own petard?

    1. We are as bad as anyone, if not worse, in running these sort of campaigns

    2. We pioneered hyper localist community politics which makes where you live more relevent.

    3. you can’t get away from the fact that we have a geographicaly based constituiency system. If localities are the basis of democratic legitimacy then surely the localness of who you elect is a legitimate issue?

    4. realistically this is much less of an issue in urban areas with mobile populations and where seat boundaries make litle sense often. However in more rural areas, where social stability is far higher surely its upto voters what they do and don’t value in a candidate?

    5. While these comments make perfect sense in the context of By Election campaigns and some of the nonsence that goes on in them what about the finished product. Does anyone really think the problem with the current set up is that we have too many “Local Champions” in the Commons and not enough career politicans?

    I did 8 years as a Councilor in an Inner City ward I lived in. I could counte on the fingers of one hand the public sector leaders who lived in it or anywhere near it. If just 50% of the relavent politicans,civil servants,senior police officers etc had to live in such communitis then a hell of a lot of intractable problems would become tractable over night

  • James Shaddock 30th Jun '08 - 4:07pm

    Excellent post.

    I’ve never got the who ‘local’ thing myself. I mean, if it an potential MP had to face a private sector interview, whether they were ‘local’ would only come into it when asked how they’d get to work because their ability is more important.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some in the party who would rather a candidate was local than good at the job.

  • Terry Gilbert 30th Jun '08 - 5:58pm

    Gladstone, as a former PM, had a rather higher starting profile in Midlothian to Stephen Kearney in Henley, as I’m sure Stephen would admit!

    One suspects that the previously selected Lib Dem candidate for the next election, who was not selected, would also have had a higher starting profile. What happened to her? Ought not PPCs to be automatically the by-election candidate?

    The Tories chose a local candidate because they knew it would help them win. Ask Chris Grayling.

  • The reason that localness is an issue at by-elections is because it is an issue for voters. That doesn’t mean it should exclude all else, of course, but the reason all parties make an issue of it is because they have done the research and found it is a persuasive factor with voters. Personally I would prefer it if it were less so but that is the way it is.

  • Paul Griffiths 30th Jun '08 - 7:12pm

    One other reason why the kinds of hyper-local issues mentioned by Gwyn (no relation) tend to be prominent in Westminster elections is that local councillors – who should properly be the ones to deal with such matters – are often powerless to act. Greater devolution would alleviate this.

  • Many thanks for the various kind comments.

    For clarity, I was not arguing that we should disregard local cerdentials where they exist.

    BUT

    I am strongly against “inventing” localness – it won’t work and will end up with us, frankly, looking shifty;

    If our candidate doesn’t have a “local” qualification then for goodness sake talk about his/her other attributes instead [presumably they have strengths or why did we pick them ???].

    Play to your strengths!

  • Bernard Salmon,

    I think you’re entirely right. Localness [whatever that may mean] is clearly “a good thing”, but not the only thing.

    I was part of the approval and selection process in Crewe & Nantwich. Ironically, the candidate we chose – who was derided by some as “an outsider” “parachuted in” “West Midlands councillor” – lived closest to the constituency of all the applicants!

    That she lived close, and had a record of action in a neighbouring authority, was probably a factor in her selection, but by no means the clinching argument.

    Perhaps our campaigning would have been “easier” if we had chosen the leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Borough Council :-

    40+ years a local resident; has lived in Crewe and its rural hinterland
    25 years experience as a borough councillor
    noted local campaigner
    went to two local schools [and no, not because he was expelled from the first!]
    worked for 20 years in a major local industry [the railway]
    etc etc etc

    But he would have been streets adrift of the person we actually chose in terms of doing the job of being the local MP, and isn’t that the key question ????

    p.s. the group leader in question won’t sue ; it’s me!

  • Hywel Morgan 2nd Jul '08 - 2:26pm

    If localness is such a deciding factor, we didn’t do to badly in Christchurch where our candidate was a “councillor from Southampton”.

    HOwever IIRC (the by-elections literature website links to that campaign are broken) we didn’t make such an issue of localness as we did in Crewe

  • David Evans 2nd Jul '08 - 6:06pm

    So much head scratching and hand wringing about a simple question. Three points make the case.

    1) A truly local candidate wins substantially more votes;
    2) We didn’t have a truly local candidate in Henley, we had one for the General election and some misguided people chose someone else who wasn’t local (Oh yes and if any party member wants to debate the legal meaning of words like “local” they are part of the problem, because voters know the old saying “Argue the facts; if the facts don’t work argue the (meaning of) words, and if the words don’t work, pound the table and shout like hell!”)
    3) We lost (very badly).

    Q.E.D.

    Crewegwyn makes an interesting point, if the best local candidates don’t want to stand, it is obviously a problem. There could be a million and one reasons why they don’t, but not thinking they are up to it, is probably undue modesty. We (i.e. the Liberal Democrats) need people like that in Westminster. There are too many lawyers, barristers and (sadly for us, because most of ours are very good) ex public schoolboys there already.

  • David Evans,

    My saying that I (40 year resident, 25 year councillor etc) was an inferior candidate to the “outsider” we selected was not “undue modesty”. It was factual.

    At the heart of my concern is that our obsession with “localness” could see us putiing forward [and perhaps electing] inferior MPs.

    As I said in my original article, I’d quite like to have an MP who can analyse significant issues and contribute to the political life of the nation – even if they haven’t “campaigned to save the Little Snodbury sub-post office”.

  • David Evans 10th Jul '08 - 9:52am

    Crewegwnn,

    Thanks for the response. My comment was aimed in general terms, not with any specific individuals in mind, though it was raised as a rallying call for those with real local experience. You are obviously the best placed to consider your own merits against that of other candidates.

    However, I would clearly say that if you’ve been a Lib Dem Councillor for 25 years and probably a Lib or Soc Dem longer than that, from my viewpoint, you would be just the sort of person we need in parliament. The ability to “analyse significant issues and contribute to the political life of the nation” is doubtless important, but we all know of well meaning grand schemes that have been an embarassing failure due to a lack of eye for detail. A prime example would be the desire to make the Post Office more profitable – which due to incompetent government target setting resulted in the closure of multiple “Little Snodbury sub-post offices”. People who have lived and campaigned at the sharp end for years know this; those who consider themselves to be deep thinkers may be good at what they do, but they often miss the point that any good intention can be messed up by insufficient planning, monitoring and control over what the people they give the job to actually do.

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