Thursday, 10 May 2012

The tennis nets election

For reasons which will become clear this is not a task I particularly relish, nor in all probability will it merit the status of even a footnote in my council ward's electoral history. However, as the author of a political blog and a candidate in the recent council elections it would be remiss of me not to share my experience with my small but obviously discerning group of readers.

It will come as no surprise to regulars that I stood as an Independent candidate in a ward (Coldside, Dundee) which returned two SNP and two Labour councillors following the single transferable vote system's first outing in 2007. At that time the Lib Dem candidate came fairly close, while the Conservative polled around 350 (first preference) votes, with around double that required to be even in with a chance of election. The two socialist/trade unionist parties combined secured around 300 votes, while yours truly - in my first outing - managed a lowly 80. Which I was actually quite pleased about because I effectively gave up fairly early on, and 80 votes seemed OK for more or less doing nothing other than securing a couple of brief mentions in the local press. Thus perhaps there was an element of name recognition due to the numerous letters I had published in the papers at that time, and no doubt some voters would select any Independent candidate standing. I certainly had no other active involvement in local politics.

Of course, it would all be different this time. So how to go about it? Well with 12,000 doors in the ward chapping on them all was never really on the cards for one man trying to earn a crust elsewhere. Anyway, I'm not one for the hard sell and neither, it would generally appear, are the public, who don't like political wannabees disturbing the peace while they're having their tea or watching Emmerdale. Thus it had to be straightforward leafleting, which in any case most voters probably prefer to having their peace disturbed?

Either way, constraints of time and budget essentially meant an A5 leaflet, one-side colour, while a supporting website could easily be constructed using a free blogging platform. Professional design was out of the question, but it seemed unlikely that that would make any more than a marginal difference to the final verdict.

So what to put on the leaflet? Well apart from the inevitably poor quality portrait-style photograph taken indoors with a cheap digital camera, together with my name and contact details, I decided on three prominent bullet-style points to set the scene, while the rest of the leaflet effectively concentrated on one of those bullet points, developed along the inter-related issues of crime, policing, alcohol and the more purely political aspect of accountability in those regards.

Thus to use contemporary political jargon the leaflet attempted to 'construct a narrative' around several issues with great personal resonance, and which also - as far as I was aware - tended to concern the public as well.

But it all broke several of the cardinal rules for this kind of thing. Lots of small text, nothing really in the way of snake and no specific promises. My rationale was that a conventional independent campaign would make little headway. My hope was that enough people would actually sit down and read the leaflet, and it would resonate sufficiently with them to have an impact. Of course, that was unlikely to garner a landslide, but if my leaflet could reach 80% of the electorate and if even only 1 in 20 of those voted for me then that would represent a respectable showing. Indeed, might have put me in with a chance in certain circumstances.

Of course, the likelihood is that it would all bomb, as indeed transpired to be the case! First problem was that another independent candidate appeared from nowhere - a resident and community council chair from another ward in fact - ensuring that the almost guaranteed but limited support for an Independent candidate would be split.

Oh well, perhaps he won't actually do very much. Wrong. He actually seemed a bit more organised than myself. And that was my next major problem. With time and resources limited I had hoped to deliver an average of 1,000 leaflets a day for ten days or so, thus perhaps meeting my 80% coverage target, or thereabouts.

Er, maybe not. Generally working nights anyway I'm not one for getting up in the morning, and as it transpired I couldn't sleep at nights, so couldn't get up too early in the day, thus just managed a few hours leafleting before it was a bit too late at night for that kind of thing. If leafleting was feasible in the late evening and early hours then I could perhaps have made my target.

And I didn't manage as many days as I'd hoped either, so perhaps managed to leaflet 60% of the ward's households. I maybe managed 1,000 on my best day, but certainly not every day. And physically this took its toll, taking me several days afterwards to feel normal again. My last session lasted seven hours without so much as a toilet break. Climbed thousands of stairs, was ringing wet with sweat and managed to get bitten by what I assume was one of those Staffordshire Terrier dogs when I put my fingers too far through one letterbox. Yes, that was a good one - the occupant heard the commotion and opened the door and asked what had happened. I held up my bleeding (and shaking) finger and said that I had just been trying to deliver a leaflet. "I've no got any leaflet", she harrumphed. Indeed. Naturally I wandered away and the person who I assume is the dog's Dad opened a side window and offered to give me a sticking plaster if I came back up the stairs. Unfortunately discretion seemed very definitely the better part of valour at that point, and I declined that kind offer.

But which had a certain irony in that one matter highlighted on my leaflet was when a local councillor objected to a black puppy used in a police advert because it could offend certain religious sensibilities. Of course, I don't doubt that some could find that offensive, but the amount of those intimidatory dogs in the area that many of the ward's residents seem to regard as some kind of fashion accessory is more the kind of thing that worries me, as my little episode ably demonstrated.

Oh aye, my leaflet also mentioned the high risk of fire in my little neck of the woods, not to mention the amount of violent episodes and murders over the years I've lived here. So there's two murders and two major fire stories in Dundee in the week before election day. And one of each actually in my ward.

Ironic, perhaps, but if this unfortunate turn of events perhaps underlined my case then it presumably didn't underline it much from the voters' perspective, because my final tally of 106 votes wasn't really much of an advance on my showing last time round. By no means the worse performance in Dundee - there were a dozen or so candidates polling less - and in fact I almost doubled my share of the vote from 1.1% to 2.05% (!), but clearly still pretty pitiful.

Perhaps if I'd been the only independent candidate, if I'd started my campaign a bit earlier and had a bit more time - to better catch the postal vote, for example - then 250/300 might have been a realistic target, but even that would have been well off the pace of the front runners. And of course being effectively ignored by the local media doesn't help, while an incumbent like the re-elected Councillor Fraser Macpherson was afforded two prominent articles concerning little more than the state of the municipal tennis courts in his ward, one of which contained a shocking revelation about a lack of nets.

Likewise, there was the glossier and more glamorous competition from the competing leaflets, replete with professional-standard photo opportunities and marketing spiel. The leaflet and card Labour put through my letterbox were very well presented indeed, but looking past the "Making Coldside Better"/"Working for you"/"We will put Coldside and its people first" vacuity/stating the obvious there was little else of substance on offer, particularly considering the length of time that Labour had controlled the city prior to the most recent couple of years of SNP rule.

The SNP's leaflet was more substantial in size but less attractive presentation-wise, and the various glossy photos were clearly designed to emphasise Dundee's two MSPs and the First Minister as much as its council candidates. Several photos of the latter however were in keeping with one major facet of the blurb, namely telling us how the SNP was spending our taxes but trying to make it sound as if it was all a result of the party's beneficence rather than coming out of our own pockets!

And aside from the excruciating "Moving Dundee Forward"/"SNP Working hard for you"/"SNP A reputation for hard work" bull the Nationalists also did a good job of making what would have probably happened anyway seem like it was all down to them. This was neatly encapsulated by council leader Ken Guild's, er, hesitant performance on Tuesday's Newsnicht, where he claimed his administration's primary aims were bringing inward investment to Dundee (gosh, that's a new one!), completing the Waterfront redevelopment and bringing the V&A Museum offshoot to the city. The latter two, of course, were well in train before the SNP took the reins in Dundee, and would very probably have happened whoever had been in power, thus the corollary of Labour ignoring its own failures and trying to claim that they would be riding to the rescue after a couple of years of SNP misrule.  And naturally there's so much council money for this, that and the next thing from Dundee's SNP that the 'London cuts' weren't even mentioned!

All of which represents merely another example of one element of the party political oligarchy perpetuating itself, with their uber-wealthy backers at one end of the scale and the likes of their leafleting cronies in the Dundee taxi trade at the other. And that's not to mention the assistance of incumbent politicians, councillors and paid assistants, meaning that us taxpayers are to a large extent funding what essentially amounts to a no-contest against people like myself spending a week's wages on leaflets and effectively taking several days off work to no avail. (And in view of the subject matter of my pitch probably putting myself in even more danger than usual, but of course according to the Dundee/Tayside Establishment our area is safer than the average, so that's OK then.) As for assistance from others, I could probably have roped in some people to deliver a few hundred leaflets, but once I'd organised them and we'd gotten in each other's way I was probably as well off doing it all myself; such are the limitations of being a true Independent!

But in the final analysis all that matters is getting elected, and clearly the public prefer the holiday brochure style of political marketing to my own slightly more straightforward approach. Which never ceases to amaze me, because we're constantly told that voters are fed up with this approach and machine politics more generally, but offer them a clear alternative and there's little interest. OK, I was never going to be the Dundee equivalent of George Galloway's recent victory, but 2% of the vote is more Dundee Disillusion than Bradford Spring!

And as I'd been aware for years, even a few hundred yards in the ward means the difference between a crime hotspot and the genteel leafy suburbs, never mind a couple of miles away, so to that extent my personal preoccupation with crime, policing and alcohol might have had very little resonance with most voters, even assuming they read my leaflet, and despite the supposed importance that the public affords to such matters.

Perhaps another factor in this regard is that these issues are not ones that most people immediately associate with local authorities (which could explain why the other candidates and parties largely ignored them) with this in turn maybe due to the fact that councillor involvement in such matters probably demonstrates the worst of the box-ticking, rubber-stamping aspect of municipal politics.

But when all was said and done it clearly wasn't meant to be for yours truly, so it's back to the margins of the MacBlogosphere, while the rest of Dundee carries on pretty much as before. Which gives me an idea for my next post...


Barbarian of the North said...

Brilliant! I always thought of standing as a councillor - bugger that.

Would make a good short film as well, or perhaps an educational one on the pitfalls of electioneering.

Look on the bright side though - you polled more votes than Jean Taggart did in the Taggart episdoe "Hostile Witness"!

(I'll get me coat.........)

Stuart Winton said...

Well unless there are exceptional circumstances I think it's a waste of time for bog-standard Independents like myself, except obviously in those generally more rural areas of Scotland which have a tradition of returning Independent councillors.

Haven't seen that particular episode of Taggart unfortunately, but one of the Lib Dems in Dundee only got 15 votes, and a Britannica candidate - whoever they are - in Glasgow only garnered nine, so I was by no means the worst!!

Stuart Winton said...

By the way, looks like Britanicca is some kind of BNP offshoot.

Barbarian of the North said...

Britannic - size 8 boot and an equivalent IQ then.......

Stuart Winton said...

Or maybe the number of votes they recieved was confused with their IQ!!