I want to use this post and the one to follow (when the European votes are counted on Sunday) to reflect on an eventful past 24 hours. As far as Southend is concerned, it has resulted in a trouncing of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and, significantly, seats gained for the Independent Alliance (3) and UKIP (5) as well as an upsurge in Labour support (3). The Council composition is now: Conservatives (19), Liberal Democrat (5), Labour (9) Independent (13), UKIP (5). Broadly, the results were as expected but likely only a few would have predicted the extent of the changes, especially the success of UKIP. What we have seen in Southend seems in line with results in much of the rest of the country, albeit with a greater than average UKIP swing here. This leaves no party with an overall majority in the Council and a number of possible permutations to ponder when it comes to forming power sharing alliances.
I spent five hours in the day doing telling duties for our local Conservative candidate, although I suspect in terms of significant impact the value might have been negligible but it is a nice tradition even so. One of the by-products of this exercise was getting to meet and engage with all sorts of people passing through and having some worthwhile exchanges with tellers from the other parties. I felt me and the Independent Councillor doing the telling were like “The Two Ronnies”, as between us we knew most of the people visiting and even got to sort out a couple of ward issues while we were at it. If anything, I would say the experience was fun. The lovely Val was on hand, as in previous years, with coffee and biscuits. One negative was being challenged by a disgruntled resident for putting him down in one of our residents meetings. It didn’t help, when after having apologized, I told him the reason for me being abrupt was that as Chair I needed to stop him hi-jacking the meeting with red herrings!
After a brief nap, I proceeded to the counting of the votes cast at the Garons Centre, never having attended one before. I suppose if I were to organize an event, I couldn’t do better than this one, which was very well organised. All the ingredients for a great event were there: meeting friends old and new, lots of them, including councilors, candidates, supporters and counting staff, enjoying the atmosphere, soaking up the human drama that was to unwind etc., having a number of good conversations – light hearted and profound. I tried to say hello to the many I knew, including congratulating and commiserating. My main blot was being maybe rather too abrupt with our local MP when he thanked me for supporting the Tories. My response was that I was supporting my local candidate and not him, and that was because of the record of the parliamentary party, his own voting record and his ineptitude to engage on a number of occasions when I had contacted him on things I cared about. In the main, not having a political axe to grind and having regard for and rapport with representatives of all the parties did help. As the evening progressed we saw the results unraveling and then finally confirmed, along with speeches, before leaving at 2.30am.
I like now to turn to observations and conclusions. Firstly, while feelings did run high among the party reps, I would say that with few exceptions everyone behaved with due dignity and decorum. As for those who did lose their seats, including the candidate I was supporting, I feel it is right to thank them for what they have done. While some worked harder and were more effective than others and in a democracy we have to bow to the will of the people, there is still sadness when people move on so abruptly. I met a number of the elder statesmen, who have been around as long as I remember, and couldn’t help but think there should be ways of honouring them for their contributions in serving the community. I met with some of the youngsters starting out in their political career and wished them well. There were many others of course, often having crossed paths amidst my many community activities, making me realize the line between community and political activism is often a thin one.
Like many, I expected the Independents to do well but was a little surprised at the success of UKIP. It would seem much of the non grass roots UKIP campaigning was on European and immigration issues and therefore less relevant locally. The electorate thought otherwise (maybe wrongly, but that is the price we pay for having a democracy), even voting in those who (it is alleged) hadn’t campaigned particularly hard or profoundly, without a past track record. When I wrote in an earlier blog why I was not supporting UKIP, those views remain. But unlike those who see UKIP success as disastrous I don’t share that view. Some of these issues need to be addressed, even if local elections aren’t the right setting for doing so.
I spoke with one UKIP leader, a Christian pastor who I have known for a long time. I also relayed to him some of the strength of feelings I have seen manifested in Facebook for example. For him, one of the key issues is individual freedom, including freedom of religion and the need for local people to control their own destinies, which have been eroded under the present government. He also shares many of my concerns and values and a belief that what this country really needs is revival in religion, not that UKIP will deliver on this but could provide a platform for this to happen. We shared our love for John Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress”, the author having spent time in prison on conscience grounds. One of the newly elected UKIP councilors, who I didn’t realize even was standing, happens to belong to my church. It was amusing witnessing his surprise at having won and advising him just to be himself, talk to my community activist friends and commit to serving the people when giving his speech, and this again gave me grounds for hope.
I think the political parties would do well to take lessons from the results. I am sure the Tory demise was partly as a result of a perceived arrogance and lack of response to local sentiment and the LibDem demise due to perceived ineptitude. I became aware of issues like the building of a sea wall that serves as evidence. I don’t have simple solutions but do suggest those in power listen to the verdict of the night. It is true that people often get the government they deserve and the poor turnout to vote (33%) is disappointing. But just maybe some of the two thirds who didn’t vote for one of the main parties might have done so if they saw a good reason. Some of the voting was by nature of protest or along lines of national trends, rather than having carefully weighed the local issues and the ability of candidates to deliver (as I had tried to do).
While friends, who I respect, have expressed a foreboding at the results, especially the success of UKIP and to a lesser extent the Independents, I don’t share this. Maybe it is because of my religious view that bad things will happen when a nation rejects God and ultimately God is in control and to Him we must look. But my reaction remains philosophical and also hopeful. Hopeful that without no party in overall control, localism will become a bigger factor. Hopeful that the traditional power base of local politics will rethink their approach in the light of the result. Hopeful that the Labour fortunes might continue and make more impact on social justice issues. For me it remains a matter of doing what we can, when we can! As far as I am concerned the opportunities for community activism are many and politics is one of the factors that is needed to deliver beneficial change to the community.