The balance between electability and visibility

Ian Briggs

Much has been made of the challenge of actually getting people to vote. The November 2012 Police and Crime Commissioners elections had a pretty dire turnout and there may be some particular issues with regard to that election; but the May 1013 local elections are somewhat different. The three major parties are turning their attention to the next general election and on the back of the Eastleigh By-election the UKIP vote is attracting some attention.

But beneath all of this we need to look more closely at some of the basics of campaigning. Political parties are not swimming with cash at the moment – resources are limited and if the truth be told nearly all parties are short of volunteers to support local campaigns.

Some recent research suggests that over 85% of the UK population have some form of internet connectivity – this of course does mean to say that all are effective users of web based communications. Can the political parties rely more on web based media, social media and electronic campaigning?

In conversations in social settings and when travelling to and from work, it is not that people are wholly disinterested, but rather it is that they say they have few opportunities to actually see the whites of the eyes of the candidates. In more concentrated urban areas it might be possible to do more door to door work but the cost and the time involved to go door knocking in dispersed population areas is a big issue for many candidates – especially as this week’s election is for mainly upper tier councils that cover significant geographical localities. This assumes that all candidates are sound of wind and limb.

A recent conversation with one candidate – a 76 year old widow – revealed that she has little financial support from her party and finds getting about a challenge. Should this in any way detract from her worthiness to stand, her ability to engage in local political and community activity? The answer has to be no, if we believe in local democracy, yet her visibility to those who she is wishing to represent is in marked contrast to the early 40s male candidate who has employer support to stand and whose political career may even enhance his professional career. He also has extensive skills to use web based and social media and can easily find the time to go from door to door in dispersed rural communities to actually talk to local people. He accepts that for many – but not all – it is the policies that he is promoting that are attractive to the electorate and not his shiny German car and sharp cut suit.

If the many who do not have strong political allegiance walk into the polls willing to vote (assuming they have the time and motivation to do so), are they more likely to offer their vote to the individual who has actually taken the time to talk to them on their doorstep? If your telephone has rung and you have been asked if you are going to vote and if so for whom, might it be the one who stood on your doorstep and engaged you in conversation? Do we think enough in the lead up to elections about who are selected to be local candidates and whether there are any inherent inequalities in the way that candidates are selected?

It might just be that sometimes the best candidates, irrespective of their party, might be the better ones to have irrespective of their politics.

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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