As the pundits keep reminding us, there has never been a more important and closely contested election in modern times. As the two main Westminster parties are seemingly deadlocked in the opinion polls, at stake is our future in Europe and the future of our beloved NHS. Behind it all lies the ideological drift of the nation, the fate of the economy and with it, our place in the world. Is Britain open for business, a fully functioning part of Europe, a country with a social conscience? Or are we about to pull up the drawbridge and look inward, not be a place for immigrants, the free movement of people and ideas and of progressive values. I know which way I will be voting on Thursday.
Here in our sleepy corner of Herefordshire, in Ledbury voters are making three decisions: for the general election, the county council and the town election, a chance conjunction. For once our gaze is focused not so much on Parliament and the impending weeks of political stalemate that lie before us, but on issues much closer to home, to the politics of Hereford and to the fate of the tiny square mile that is our Ledbury, nestled under the Malvern Hills, with its ten thousand inhabitants.
The darkening international landscape of ‘Grexit’ and ‘Brexit’ (what ghastly neologisms), of Syria, Libya and ISIS, of drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, of conflict in Ukraine and Western Africa, provoke a gloomy mood, and a feeling of powerlessness. So here we are doing the thing that we must: to take control of our lives where we are able. Over the last four years, people in this town have risen up in an extraordinary struggle to be heard and to fight for the kind of town they wish for.
The story of that conflict has changed things here – where local people have gone to war with each other, have faced off big business and have wrenched political power out of the hands of the old, entrenched elite who have had it all their own way for decades. Our struggle is mirrored in towns, villages and communities up and down the country. Ledbury is not alone.
The Ledbury election of 2015 is the first in the town council’s modern history, since its inception as a first tier ‘parish council’ decades ago. While there have been occasional by-elections when casual vacancies have cropped up mid term, the full complement of eighteen councillors have never in one go been subject to a ballot. Elections have been in name only. This is because there have always been too few candidates to trigger an election. Those who have come forward each four years (mostly the same people from the previous four years), have been elected unopposed, with the remaining handful of vacancies filled by co-option, a poor form of local democracy. This time, a diverse band of people have crept out of the shadows and said enough. For the first time ever, election candidates are tramping the streets with leaflets and canvassing in the town centre. What an amazing atmosphere of hope is being created.
It didn’t used to matter so much that town councils like Ledbury’s were stuck in a time warp, full of stuffy blokes going about their pompous business in committees like characters out of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Of late, however, as public service cuts have bitten hard into the social and environmental fabric of life, residents have begun to ask what the hell their council is prepared to do about it, and if nothing, what is its purpose. At the same time, central government has handed significant new competences to first-tier authorities for planning, for the adoption of community assets and economic development. Suddenly it really does matter what our town council is up to, the kind of people who are making far-reaching decisions on our behalf – or not, as we have seen in Ledbury.
On Friday 8 May 2015, Ledbury, alongside Herefordshire, may wake up to a new, invigorated form of local politics. It might just be that a quiet revolution is taking place here. Let us see.