Lessons from the Basildon doorstep

Angela SmithBaroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords and was MP for Basildon from 1997 to 2010

On Thursday 3rd May over 4,500 council seats will be contested and the candidates for those seats will be vying for votes and trying to get local issues raised. When I first stood in council elections, candidates would be asked for photos and words for the local papers.  Now, whilst many papers will want photos, few will print them all, and ever fewer will give candidates the opportunity to put their views in print.

One of the frustrations of local election candidates and councillors is how difficult it is to get the local issues, into the political debate and campaign.

This year with the Government’s incompetence being brought to the fore, the Government-inflicted fuel crisis, a universally condemned budget, and the furore over the Health Bill, it’s even harder to get local issues on the agenda.

But should we fight local elections on only local issues?   It’s hard to make that distinction between local and national, especially at a time when the Conservative/Lib Dem Government is making drastic cuts to local government budgets that, in private, even Conservative councillors admit are devastating. But do they speak out?  A few maybe, but most will be knocking on doors supporting the Government’s ‘austerity’ programme as they did in last year’s elections and at the General Election before that, whilst at the same time trying to distance themselves from the impact their policies are having.

In Basildon there are at least 4 key seats Labour are fighting to take from the Tories and one we’re fighting to win from the Lib Dems.  Last year, we won 2 and narrowly missed out on others whilst our vote rose across the district, and this year we’re aiming higher.  In next door Thurrock we’re fighting to consolidate our leadership of the council and in surrounding areas we’re anticipating not just a higher vote, but more Labour councillors on May 4th.

So what’s our campaign message?  And how best to get that message across?

Whilst telephone canvassing, e-mails, Twitter and Facebook are all great extras and have modernised campaigning, the main tool of winning votes has never changed – the candidate being available to listen to and talk to voters – whatever issues they want to raise.

We have first rate candidates in all of our key seats who, since being  selected have been out delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, talking and listening to people and campaigning with local residents on the issues that matter to them.

Whether it’s the location of a local bail hostel, the proposal for a Thames estuary airport, speeding on local roads, protecting recreation areas or supporting local council day centres and council facilities our candidates are at the forefront.  

They’ve also been highlighting bad decisions taken by the Tory council and what is clear is that in many areas Tory councillors have taken voters’ support for granted and few residents even know who they are.  Promises made by Tory candidates at the time of the last election remain unfulfilled.  Support for charities has been cut and whilst the council press release boasts of a fall in the ‘fear of crime’, actual crime has increased – so a Tory councillor writes to the paper saying that the crime increase is just a blip and not to worry!

So these are the issues we highlight – incompetence and complacency at national and local level. 

There’s now just 4 weeks to go.  I’ve no doubt that the Government will try and pull something out of the bag to help their local election candidates – but from the response on the doorstep, they’ve a lot of ground to make up.

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