Ahead of the local elections on May 5th, MPC’s Ben Draper looks back at his local election campaign last year...
I remember where I was when I finally got it. I was stood on a cold dark driveway. I had never met the silhouetted voter before me, even though I was meters from my house. The door she gesticulated out of was half open, as if that was all she wished to reveal of her life.
“I don’t care what colour you are, you’re all the same to me”, she said, nodding at my candidate’s rosette.
“But if you fix that gritting bin I’ll vote for you. It’s a total mess!” She slammed the door without waiting for my response.
Within her surly, simple pledge, the key to the election could be found.
It had eluded me during the six months I had spent on the streets campaigning. The proportion of undecided voters had remained unchanged in half a year. At an improbably high 40%, few had given it thought, others didn’t care.
My knuckles were raw from stuffing leaflets through letterboxes. I would watch as they landed on a sediment of junk mail. Labour, Lib Dem, Tory, takeaway menu; each just another glossy proposition, competing for attention during the ten-second journey to the occupant’s recycling box.
Our party politics and vision weren’t penetrating. Most voters knew more about what their local takeaway was serving than how government worked. As a Council candidate, I was asked so often who ran the Council that I had taken to carrying around a laminated graph depicting its political balance.
Why would the average voter know anything about the nuts and bolts of Council management without any reason to? Why would most private homeowners be enthralled by the mechanics of housing association grants? And as for party politics? My neighbour and gritting bin enthusiast had told me everything I needed to know about that.
But one topic reliably got people talking: Development. Whether in favour of the nearby housing estate planned, against the removal of the bus stop up the road or riled up about green belt swaps, it was one topic that cut through the apathy like nothing else.
That is why planning applications have infinitely more potential to galvanise local residents than political parties do: Because a political party machine, weak local government or distant national government has so much less relevance to our lives than a shopping centre being built next door. In today’s era of social media connectivity, shrinking attention spans and falling membership of political parties, a planning campaign will rouse residents far more than whats-his-face on the News at Ten.
The lesson was clear: The effect development has on living environment and local experience trumps all. And as a vote winner, it works. One candidate in the next Ward won after opposing a planned park-and-ride. My rival was re-elected due to their promotion of the local High Street’s regeneration.
The term ‘political football’ was invented to describe controversial planning applications at election time. The smart developers avoid making their developments…football-shaped.
This article was written by Ben Draper of the Bath office.