I return to my blog after a self-imposed hiatus. A combination of moving house, having another baby and running as a Labour candidate in the local elections meant that I have been, like a donkey on a Spanish clock tower, somewhat on the edge.
Running for council was a great experience. It was a pleasant surprise that the majority of people were happy to talk to me about local issues or national politics, and whilst I got told to eff off on occasion it happened less than if I had stayed at home with my wife.
However, despite this, with a 32% turnout in my ward (St Mary’s Park, Battersea) it is obvious that there is a lot of work to do to engage people sufficiently to vote in local elections. If 2 out of 3 voters cannot see enough a reason to vote then local democracy looks rather anaemic.
There are several factors causing this. In part there is an issue with people not realising the full effect that decisions taken at town hall can have on their lives. Whilst successive governments have steadily emasculated local government the council remains important. Schools, roads and social care all come, to some extent, within local government’s remit.
There is also a significant ‘plague on all your houses’ contingent. Quite a lot of people tend to think that politicians are all the same. This feeling is related to a problem with the professionalization of politics and political discussion in the media veering between the banal and infantile bickering. There is a danger of the mainstream parties being seen as two idiots arguing in the corner and not noticing that everyone else has drifted off home (or to an after party at Nigel Farage’s house with Godfrey Bloom playing the bongos).
Locally in Wandsworth we have also had many ears of Tory administration which has led some to believe that there is little to no point in voting. The fact that our candidate lost by a handful of votes in the ward of Queenstown should show that every vote does count.
Related to all these points is a general ennui, the (partly understandable) cynicism expressed by Russell Brand that nothing will really change. This increasingly pervasive, and ultimately quite dangerous, disassociation with democracy is what we need to tackle. I was told on numerous occasions that whilst I seemed alright they did not think “politicians” were interested in normal people. How can we overcome this?
I think that in the long-term it is through a much greater engagement with the community at every level. It is this sort of continuing micro-politics that is the essence of Tip O’Neill’s assertion that all politics is local. Through continuing engagement people will see the real effects that politics has on their lives.
I enjoyed talking to local residents that I would not necessarily meet in other circumstances. It was a privilege to be able to help some people and a source of pride when we achieved something, no matter how small, for local residents. I hope that these small acts can help to restore a little faith in the machinery of local politics. These conversations and local involvement can make our communities better and show that politics matters.
It was enlightening to see the real and pernicious effects of inequality. In the past I have been guilty of looking at issues through a theoretical and ideological prism. Seeing these things as they are actually being lived by people brings home the casual cruelty of poor policy such as the Bedroom tax.
Many of the conversations I had in our local estates arose from the effects of years of disregard by the council. Some are in desperate need of regeneration with barely functioning lifts and dirty stairwells. This environment provides fertile ground for anti-social behaviour, which self-perpetuates. If the stairs are strewn with rubbish the likelihood of fly-tipping grows. The worse-kept the stairs the more likely it seems you will find people taking hard drugs there. This erosion of pride in the public realm has negative effects on us all.
These problems are compounded by the fact that these places are the ones bearing the brunt of the worst aspects of austerity and they suffer disproportionately at the hand of the council’s cuts.
It is through tackling these issues that we can re-engage communities even if the change can be infuriatingly gradual at times. Local residents want to make their areas better. This energy is there to be harnessed and can help bring about real and effective change in our communities. My hope is that we as a party can help these people and make a valuable contribution to our local life. If we do this then people will have a real and compelling reason to get out and vote.