Election time again

Reading today’s Echo’s article 28/04 titled “Can anyone halt the rise of Ukip in borough council elections” reminded me yet again that election day, May 22, is looming, now just 3 weeks away. I’m not sure if it is me or it is something to do with UK life, but I get the impression one can continue doing what one normally does without even being aware that elections are about to happen. That is a pity since there are many issues that Southend currently faces, not least how to spend its dwindling pot of money, that have, at least to some extent, a local solution, affect us all and matter a lot. We should get to know what individual candidates think and be in a position to make informed decisions when it comes to casting our vote.

As for the General Election, we have to wait until next year but, as for this May’s elections, it is about European and local matters, although I have no doubt that this will have consequences as parties vie for position to best face the General Election. I have to confess my ignorance about much that is to do with European elections (I know virtually nothing about any of the candidates and not enough about what they are standing for) and propose dealing with the whole subject of Europe in a future post. As for local elections, I am a lot more clued up, having had dealings with a surprising number of those who are standing for election because of my involvement in the community, over many years and in many different areas.

The two interesting snippets to take from the Echo article is firstly the speculation (the signs suggest likelihood) that the Tories are going to do badly and thereby lose their majority in the Council, necessitating making alliances with minority parties. The other is about UKIP’s rising star, already reflected upon in a previous post, along with that of the Independents (although some would say the title is an oxymoron and they are a party in all but name anyway). The irony about UKIP is that Europe and immigration (their main issues if their poster campaign is to be believed) are not really local issues and the threat they pose to existing parties is there only because of people’s disillusionment with them. I get frustrated at times by mainstream politicians attempts at demonizing UKIP (as they did with the BNP before that) rather than tackle the often valid issues UKIP raise as well as the ones they avoid raising.

I have gone on record saying (and if you were to able to find my filled in ballot slips you will know this is true) that who I vote for in each of the European, General and Local elections will depend on who it is that is standing firstly and how I perceive the party they represent secondly. It is quite possible that the party could be different in every case. I am what was known as a floating voter and nowhere is this more evident in my voting history in local elections. My own ward, St. Lukes, used to be a safe Labour seat, but in recent years we have had representatives from Labour, Conservative and the Independents, and I have known and worked (and like to think, got on well) with them all, especially in the past eight years when for much of that time I have been the Chair of our local residents association. I’ve sometimes reflected, sadly, that people’s voting patterns tend to mirror more national trends than local issues and not enough credit is given to those who work especially hard.

It also happens that I have voted for candidates from each of the parties during that time and have sometimes been a teller for one of them on polling day. I am aware of the ambitions of the current crop of hopeful candidates from those parties, and have some idea what each could bring to the “party” in this May’s election, and feel that all have qualities that could serve the ward, as well as mindful of faults that could hinder service. If elected, I would look forward to working with any one of them. Right now, I am undecided as to how to cast my vote but the factors that will ultimately make up my mind are the individual’s grasp of the issues and how best to address them and who I think will be best for the ward. My one piece of advice to my local candidates though is don’t sign me up as a teller because every candidate I have told for up to now has gone on to lose!

I am writing to talk about local politics and make a number of observations. As a community activist, and one that tries to be party politically neutral, I have come to see how important politics is when it comes to getting things done and making needed changes. Given that I know a number of local politicians, from all parties, like a number of them (not that that should matter much), work with a number of them on a number of issues and speak to a number of them off the record and quite openly, in confidence, I need to think carefully what I am about to say. Firstly to say, there is usually little point upsetting people without good reason and, secondly, I regard my relationship often akin to that of the parish priest – what is said in the confession box, stays in the confession box.

As things currently stand, I see little that would persuade me to recommend others to vote for any of the parties locally, or to favour one party over another when it comes to which one would do best in governing Southend, so it has then to come down to which individuals might serve their ward best. One thing that being a community activist, especially being chair of a residents association, has helped me to do, is to recognize the relative importance of the many and various local issues, and while on one hand there is little councilors can do to change matters, they are the democratically elected people who can and they can often push open doors and access services and decision makers that us lesser mortals can’t. I have some sympathy though with local councillors who want to do good, since higher powers such as national government and, pertinently, European, as well as Council officials and powerful vested interests, all having a bearing on what they can and can’t do.

However, issues like Mrs X’s noisy neighbor, Mr Y’s problem trying to find parking outside his house or Miss Z’s concerns over local drug dealers, continue to abound and often councillors are able to do something to bring about needed change. Experience has taught me that a tenacious, diligent, smart and resourceful councilor can make a real difference, notwithstanding being involved with some of the bigger picture issues that shouldn’t be ignored either, and it is by considering such matters that I try to come to an informed view.

Over the years, I have seen many councilors come and go and, in the main, to give credit where credit is due, they have often sought to serve their ward to the best of their ability with often little, it seems, reward or recognition. When they do go, and such is the inevitability of a democracy, there is often a tinge of sadness and a feeling that there should be some better way to show gratitude. Some are too full of their own importance; most are restricted by what they are interested in or understand and what comes up on their particular radar; and some have more of the common touch and engage with individual residents better than others. Sometimes, the nature of politics is such that councillors do things for reasons other than the common good or, more specifically, not in the interests of the residents of wards they represent. I sometimes get the impression that enthusiasm can give way to complacency over time and there is a tendency for councillors to take credit where credit isn’t due.

One thing I have noticed is the age of some of the councilors, a good number of which are retired, and some going on longer than they should. As an oldie myself, I am all for older people making a contribution, but there continues to be a need for more young blood as well. While I feel I have my work cut out in other areas etc., I take on board the challenge of one councillor, who responded to my “UKIP poster” blog entry, for me to get involved politically, but I do endorse the notion that we need more good people who are. I am also mindful that accusations of corruption are never far away, such as what might happen when one is at the beck and call of some powerful business interest, there being the temptation to line one’s own pocket or the possibility of compromising if belonging to a Masonic lodge. While I am making no specific accusation here, I will issue a warning to watch out. Lord Acton’s idea (although it is there in the Bible) that “power corrupts” (as can also money and sex) is all too true, and in this respect we all need to watch out.

The job of a councilor, at least as I see it, is to serve the people who they represent. It is not an easy job. It is often a thankless one and, given the level of abuse banded around (not just by the general public but other councillors also), one where a thick skin is usually needed. Evidently, in Southend, with the continuous tightening of belts, there are many unmet needs and gaps in services, and I am especially interested how Councillors view engaging with the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS), in particular faith communities, to address those needs. I will be on the look out for folk with a serving heart, a degree of humility, a vision of what constitutes the common good and an insight into what is best for this town of Southend, which I love, and I will be willing on and encouraging such folk to be our elected representatives.

I conclude that voting in the forthcoming elections does matter, as does voting intelligently. It has been said, by no less a person than the late Winston Churchill: “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. Like it or not, our voting for councilors to serve our borough, in May’s election, is an important means toward our getting the changes we desire and the government we deserve.