When democratic participation was first discussed by Ledbury Town Council, I tentatively suggested that Ledbury Town Council might play a small part in helping to encourage people to vote by publishing details of the prospective candidates on its own web site. Amid howls of derision, the idea was rejected out of hand.
One after another, town councillors thundered that it was the job of candidates to do their own publicity, not the council. Delivering the final coup de grâce, chairman Cllr Clive Jupp said that such a move would actually be illegal. ‘We can’t do it’, he declared.
The thing is, and there’s no diplomatic way of putting this, he was wrong.
I did point this out quietly after the meeting, and suggested he might put the public record straight with committee colleagues, but he declined. In justifying his claim later, Cllr Jupp explained that he was ‘quoting advice received some years ago about a Council not being seen to promote specific candidates and therefore it was unwise for the Council to distribute election addresses’.
That may be so, but the law is clear. There are no stipulations which prevent councils from providing candidate information on their web sites or in publications. It is of course essential that any such information is provided in a way which is scrupulously fair to all candidates, and does not in any way favour one over another. While advising caution, the Electoral Commission confirm that there is no legal reason that prevents a council providing basic candidate information if they wish.
In fairness, Ledbury Town Council isn’t alone in being wary of embracing new ways of doing things, particularly when it comes to voter engagement and external communications. As deputy mayor Cllr Rob Yeomans pointed out in a recent discussion on democracy, Ledbury isn’t any worse than the other town councils in Herefordshire, which is strictly true - although hardly a justification for sitting back and doing nothing.
Pitifully low voter turnout, few candidates for town council vacancies, and a long history of uncontested elections should not be a matter for self-congratulation or an excuse to abdicate responsibility, even if those abysmal circumstances are shared with others like you. Like smoking and being overweight, certain things are bad for you full stop. There is no safety in numbers. |
In any case, why shouldn’t Ledbury aspire to being best in class? Why not become a shining example of a town council that breaks with precedent and tackles the democratic shortfall in its local community? What democratic mandate does the council have if it is not actively attracting talented, energetic electoral candidates and promoting voter participation?
Here’s how to do it. London Elects is the democratic services office of the Greater London Assembly. It manages everything to do with London Assembly and Mayor elections - from designing and printing the ballot papers, managing the counting of votes, to delivering a public awareness campaign to tell Londoners about the election and how they can vote. With beautiful clarity, each of the prospective candidates is allocated a page to set out their manifesto (see picture above). What’s the problem?
In my research, one of the dominant reasons why people don’t vote in town council elections is because they don’t know who the candidates are, nor what they stand for. It’s not a revolutionary idea that says voters want information about the people they are being asked to support. The traditionalists on Ledbury Town Council are right when they say candidates should make an effort to get elected – but that's just half the story. Think of it from a candidate’s point of view: it costs money to print a leaflet, have it delivered, make a web site, not to mention the big investment of time canvassing on the streets. I spent a few hundred pounds on my election publicity, which I could ill-afford, but lots of people couldn’t even contemplate doing that.
As an individual candidate seeking election you are on your own. There is no party machinery, no helpers behind you, no safety in numbers... Make no mistake, standing for election is a hard slog, and sometimes a thankless task. Why should tight finances be a bar to standing for election?
My argument is this. To hell with custom and practice, the attitude that says we’ve always done it this way, or never done this or that, just because.
Let’s start by resolving to make candidates who want to stand for election feel valued, empowered and acknowledge that they’re doing something noble and valuable and deserve all the help they can get. Let’s take away as many of the barriers to their involvement as we can. Let’s help them get their message across to the electorate. Let’s start acting like we care that people from all sections of our community are getting involved in town council affairs – not just the privileged few, the people who have plenty of time on their hands, and cash in their back pockets.
Democracy is about openness, fairness, accountability and inclusion. I humbly suggest again, that we consider putting a little section on the town council web site saying who’s standing and in their own modest 100 words, allowing them the chance to say what they stand for: is that really too much to ask?