***Long read for the weekend***
I’m writing this as I anxiously await the results of local council elections. It’s been a strange one for me, because it’s the first election since I foreswore party allegiance (I maintain that I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me) – but the result still matters to me, because I know many of the candidates in my town, and I still know quite a lot of what goes on in councils.
“We must rebuild trust” — that’s been a catchphrase in politics nationally several times in recent years. It’s generally used to mean, “no one believes our last lot of lies, but my focus team have just thought up another lot.”
If there’s one skill many local councils lack, it’s public relations. They rarely know, or try to address, their public image – they just do what they think right (most of them) and pray. That’s because council officers don’t have to face elections every four years and the councillors themselves are usually citizen-advocates, not career politicians.
As a result, come election times, the national parties are professionally mendacious and as for councils – the best of them mainly hope for approval, and the worst of them get really nasty in the face of competition and judgement.
How do you “rebuild trust”? Did we ever hear a national political leader say “we must start being honest, so people learn to trust us?” well actually, I did hear one erstwhile leader say something like that, he got drummed out, as a ‘danger to national security’ but anyway…
This came up in my Facebook ‘memories’ yesterday (5th May)
But I think this election campaign, seven years on, has been worse.
I look at the situation in my town as the campaigns close, and think well, we’re not quite back where we were in Victorian times, before we had anything even resembling democracy, and election time was presented as a series of street brawls and butter-em-up beanoes but you know, in a way we’re in a worse position. At least back then, most people couldn’t vote so arguing about elections was their only available input. But this time around, in my town, I think these local election campaigns have been the most deeply distressing ones I’ve ever seen. In particular, I saw on social media, or heard from friends about doorstep conversations, in which two candidates in particular, quite vulnerable people I might add –were repeatedly and horribly slandered by a party who were crowing about their ‘clean, positive campaign’ (whilst nastily smearing other parties for apparently not being clean and positive).
Of course, that’s just ‘hearsay’ – there is no official record of doorstep conversations, let alone proof of what people say people said on the door step so I’ll say ‘alleged slanders’, knowing that the people who told me these things are neither daft nor mendacious. This was a miserable and cruel election period, and I don’t think we need to hire investigators to find out why it happened, and it wasn’t just my town. I saw this post from a friend on Facebook in the evening of polling day…
… and he’s absolutely right. The behaviour of well-paid, supposedly respectable national politicians has set an appalling standard, which appears to be rubbing off on a scarily large proportion of the population.
I said in reply to that comment that it was hard on the many decent council candidates, who were standing because they cared about people, about their own towns, and so on but the response I got was also true. You can’t keep voting for people who stand under the banner of lying, devious, destructive organisations such as any of our Westminster political parties.
(Bad heading I guess – trickle down economics does *not* work, but I’m afraid our town has seen evidence that trickle down nastiness does.)
A few years ago, we had a local councillor tap into that appalling weaponization of anti-Semitism campaign that some people still claim didn’t happen, diss just about all her colleagues and leave her party. That didn’t just lead to nastiness and suspicion, it also led to at least one, probably two, good councillors not standing again due to the resultant stress and nastiness. Last year, we had a councillor do the same thing with ‘transphobia’ allegations, leading to even more stress and nastiness because even some of the quite sensible people haven’t worked out what that’s about yet. Neither of those perpetrators of grand denouncement came up with any evidence whatsoever, and both were hard to believe, given the pretty well known characters and previous actions of the victims, and the recent one happened so very soon after said councillor getting elected, and led so very quickly to them leaping into the arms of another party that had been hankering after another seat that one can only wonder if the whole thing was a set up from the start.
Modelling bad behaviour
In the run up to the election, this was published on the Council website, months after the events I describe above – too long, in fact, to prevent a tide of gossip, bile and damage:
Hastings Borough Council Standards Committee minutes
It’s hard to get across just how much grief and misunderstanding the misdeeds recorded in that document caused, and the air still hasn’t been cleared because outside immediate council circles, few have worked out who did what to whom.
and we had this
That’s one elected councillor (female) speaking, another elected councillor (male) ending her speech by scrambling for the mic, whilst a third elected councillor (also male) stands by watching his colleague, then has photos took of himself and puts them on his facebook page, telling everyone what a smashing time he had. It did not even occur to him he was witnessing his colleague assaulting a woman.
The gullible and the innocently misled
It won’t do, it just won’t. Most people are not closely involved in party politics, nationally or locally, so they can only guess at what’s going on most of the time. For those who happen to have insight into events, it’s frightening just how badly wrong people get it.
It won’t do
We have two options – either we take to the streets, and stay out there demanding better from our national politicians – that takes a long time and involves a lot of people going to jail or getting roughed up by police – remember the yellow jackets in France? Battling for months and months… It might come to that in the end anyway, neither Johnson nor Starmer appear to have any shame, but – the other option is to reject party politics altogether, and look to independent candidates.
Nationally, that requires vote reform. Locally, it’s not that common because it takes a lot of knowledge, quite a bit of funding and a good support base for an independent candidate to run a viable campaign. That’s why it’s usually right-wingers (they tend to be wealthier) who stand as independents but what if there were groups who already have a support base and some funds to draw on, and time to look into how it’s done and make viable plans?
You know what, I think we do – what about We Own It, or Bring Back British Rail, or Defend Our NHS – what about all those campaign groups who came together locally to save care services, or challenge profiteering water companies? There are campaign groups we know and trust on individual policy issues. Can we ask them to look to their legal structures, change their constitutions if necessary, and make plans to stand council candidates next time around? It’d take a year or two to organise it effectively, so please consider going to the campaign groups you know and trust, and putting the idea to them now. (Really now, before you forget – when is their next meeting? Write it down somewhere.)
The other thing you can do of course, is be one of the many socialists recently expelled or suspended by the Labour Party, who is already a councillor. That’s how Liverpool have just got themselves an independent socialist group on the council. Good for them. I hope and trust they will do great things.
As for the nationals when they come around – well, that’s more difficult, because it requires electoral reform – but hey, we have electoral reform campaign groups! If you’re a member of one, please post this blog on their social media pages, or take the idea along to their meeting yourself, and suggest to them that we could do with some electoral reform candidates. They could present themselves for council elections as candidates for ‘honesty, transparency and fairplay’. Oh my, could some councils do with a member like that!
Know your politics
I think my view of local and national politics is relatively well informed, but I am also aware that now I’m no longer a party officer, and no longer involved in any national political groups, my view will be becoming less clear.
I would worry that the first half of that statement was arrogant if I wasn’t also keeping a firm grip on the second. One of the great dangers to democracy is people who *think* they are well-informed. Talking to people during the election campaign, I saw scary amounts of people who thought they were well informed because they watched the news and or read the papers attentively. Many think they are critical readers who can ‘read between the lines’. They don’t appear to take account of the fact that a professionally mendacious organisation will not just mislead you with overt statements, they will also have given attention to what their words imply – in other words, they are also crafting what you can see ‘between the lines’.
I remember ‘well-informed’ people like that coming into a constituency meeting during the last Labour leadership elections. They had been watching TV attentively and reading papers carefully and had come to tell those of us who were actively involved in the party that we’d got it wrong, that Starmer would be a good and highly electable socialist leader. We knew they were wrong, because we had seen what he’d been doing in the party during the Corbyn years. It was not pretty, it was not democratic, and it was not socialism. But we couldn’t convince them.
The time it takes
I know that on the surface, it looks as though the average person cannot possibly have time to keep themselves sufficiently ‘in the know’ to vote effectively – but that’s misleading. If you added up the time the average person spends on TV and newspapers in a week, if they scrapped that pointless activity and replaced it with attending local or national conferences and actually getting to know the people in politics, or if they re-allocated their reading time to a range of independent journalists’ blogs, books and journal articles, if they got themselves involved in trade union political education workshops once in a while, or went to local people’s assembly or council debates once in a while, I believe they could be far, far better informed without much increase in time taken. In my opinion, they would also find it more interesting.
Remember Brexit? You cannot have secure, creative democracy unless the population are properly informed and integrated into functional communities.
So – we need a change in our political structure, to allow small parties and individual candidates to make their influence felt – independents ask challenging questions. They are a great check to quasi-democracy. And we need a better-informed electorate. The latter is the easiest bit for any one person to get started on. The former needs some coming-together and organising. Let’s get to work.
The results will be out in my town soon. I expect to see some Labour loss, as Starmer’s Labour has upset a lot of people. I expect to see some Conservative loss, because Johnson’s Conservatives have upset a lot of people. It’s such a shame for the results to have to depend on so many negatives, but there may not be much change in our council. I’m off to find out…
In the meantime, I think we do have quite a lot of decent, honest councillors and even one or two decent MPs. Please support them, and remind people from time to time that it’s far easier to slag people off because of assumed failings and slanders than it is to be a successful councillor or MP under a dishonest government.
Here’s hoping for better politics in the future. If you have any other ideas to help it happen, please post in the comments below this post. We need to hear them!
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