Opinion: Some notes from the doorstep in a weird election campaign

“This has been the strangest election I’ve ever fought,” one veteran Lib Dem councillor – first elected in 1974 – told me last week.

She was worried about the result of the local elections – not for her own sake (she’s almost certain to win), but for the political health of our county as a whole. The prospect of a lot of independent councillors running the local authority is a worrying one for all of us. And people are clearly in the mood to give mainstream politics a kicking.

Let me give you a couple of real examples from local doorsteps, where I have been every day since the expenses scandal broke.

First, there is the pleasant, respectable middle-aged lady who told me, with a straight face, that she wanted to vote for “the stupidest party on the ballot paper – someone I’ve never heard of and don’t know anything about.” (Those were more or less her exact words).

Then there is my next door neighbour – a likable, friendly chap, who brings our recycling boxes back into the garden for us every week, who told me he was planning to vote BNP. I was horrified: he’s a normal bloke. I’ve since talked him out of it – I hope.

Another elderly woman, a long-time Tory supporter – who claims to have known Churchill personally – told me she was voting Lib Dem for the first time in her 88 years because she can’t stand David Cameron, even though Cameron presents himself as the most liberal Conservative leader since Churchill.

As for Labour, they have been almost non-existent. Despite Camborne and Redruth having had a Labour MP until 2005, I haven’t seen a single Labour poster anywhere. Indeed, I’ve seen hardly any election posters. People seem almost ashamed to admit there’s an election going on. Others just don’t want to know any more. One octogenarian I canvassed said he wasn’t voting for the first time in his life. He had always voted and always supported Labour. “But look at the mess this country’s in,” he said. “What’s the point?”

People clearly feel let down, fed up and disengaged. Obviously the expenses scandal is part of the cause. But from what I can gather, it is only a small part. The real cause of the mood of public despair seems to stem from something deeper: a lack of real choice between the parties who are likely to win. The biggest complaint I have had on the doorstep is not expenses: it’s that main parties all look and sound the same. They attack each other, but the detail of policy differs only mildly. What kind of democracy is that, people are asking.

The old joke – that whoever you vote for, you get the government in – has never sounded so appropriate to many people. For them, the current crisis in politics isn’t one of heated political scandal and sleaze: it is it is one of blandness and boredom.

As Julia Goldsworthy put it on Any Questions this week: people feel that their vote doesn’t count. That is certainly the impression I’ve been getting on the doorstep, and people are likely to react against it. But the consequences of their actions could make things worse, like in Hartlepool in 2002, when voters – fed up with the ruling Labour council – elected a man dressed as a monkey to be their mayor. Not surprisingly, things went from bad to worse for local people.

The challenge for national politicians now is to surely to put in place reforms that actually do enfranchise the electorate and give people more a voice. Giving voters the power to deselect useless or errant MPs would help.

But local councillors should also be held to account more – too many of them do too little once they have been elected. They should be made to hold regular surgeries and actively seek out casework. And those that have dreadful attendance records at council meetings should be sacked, and a by-election forced.

One thing this election has made clear to me is that politicians must be serious about empowering the public in order to win back their trust. Papering over the cracks will just mean that the house falls down.

* Joe Taylor is Liberal Democrat Organiser for Camborne and Redruth.

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9 Comments

  • Why shouldn’t somebody who works for the local football club (even as a mascot) stand for election?

  • It sounds like a good time to be an “independent”.
    We all know the councillors who stand as independents but are card carrying Tories, or who always vote with them. To be fair I do know a Libdem who stands as Independent.
    But I don’t think that Labour high command allow them to do the same – anybody know different?

  • “like in Hartlepool in 2002, when voters – fed up with the ruling Labour council – elected a man dressed as a monkey to be their mayor. Not surprisingly, things went from bad to worse for local people”

    I think you will find the H’Angus the Monkey aka Stuart Drummond turned out to be a pretty good mayor and in 2005 increased his majority.
    It does beg the question if a football mascot can take up elected office and do a good job, perhaps we should have more monkeys elected and less pigs.

  • Terry Gilbert 5th Jun '09 - 11:56pm

    Yeah Hangus has just be re-elected again.

    But one problem is that the Tories where I live got 45% of the votes and 71% of the seats.

  • “One thing this election has made clear to me is that politicians must be serious about empowering the public in order to win back their trust.”

    Our sitting County Councillor was allowed to stand again, in spite of the fact that the majority of people wanted another candidate, and the result was a protest vote for UKIP and we lost another County Council seat. Ignoring the electorate is not the way to go!

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