Elections: a wasted democratic opportunity

The byelection campaign in Hanover & Elm Grove has begun in earnest with today’s selection of Emma Daniel as the Labour candidate.

It could be an interesting contest. Both Emma and David Gibson, the Green candidate, are people of integrity, who are interested in engaging  and empowering people to make real change. Maybe the byelection will be a rare opportunity for ordinary voters to set the agenda and influence the direction of the city by electing a candidate who will truly represent us.

On the other hand, it could be a hard-fought, too-close-to-call, brutal campaign, with both candidates dragged along behind the tribal juggernauts of their party machines.

All too often, what should be the quintessential democratic moment turns out to be a period in which real debate is drowned out by bickering, point-scoring and phoney statistics – the party organiser’s favourite tool in the battle for tactical votes.

There are three reasons why election campaigns are so awful:

1. First past the post – canvassing

In addition to all the other (very important) reasons why FPTP is a rubbish electoral system, it also makes for terrible election campaigns because it means parties must concentrate all their energies on identifying “their” voters in order to get them out to vote on the day.

That is the only purpose of canvassing. They are not trying to find out what we are interested in or present their policies to us for consideration. They just want to know how we are planning to vote.

If we say we will vote for them, they mark us on a list and make sure to check whether we turn up at the polling station. If we haven’t shown up by the evening, they will come round to remind us. All parties do this, it’s how you run an election campaign in the UK.

With over a month until polling day, both Labour and Greens will be aiming to do a full canvass of the ward. It’s doable, but it’s a big job. The canvassers will be in a hurry – they won’t have time to debate issues or learn something from you, in order to help develop their policies. As soon as they have found out your intentions, they will want to be on their way.

2. First past the post – tactical voting

Political parties are so used to relying on tactical voting that they do it even when there is no real need (such as in a two horse race like Hanover & Elm Grove).

So all parties spend much more time talking about how many people are promising to vote for them than about why anybody should want to do that. The idea is that people want to be on the winning side, and that if you vote for a candidate who doesn’t get elected, your vote is “wasted”.

Social media enables parties to do this to a nauseating degree. As a local wit recently pointed out, if you believed everything you saw on Twitter, you would think everyone in Hanover & Elm Grove was intending to vote Labour, and everyone was intending to vote Green!

Watch out for the misleading and/or irrelevant graphs on election literature too. Both Labour and Greens have been much too fond of these in recent elections.

3. Personality politics and negative campaigning

I think this may also partly be a consequence of first past the post. If you can’t persuade voters to support you because they agree with your policies, it’s just as effective to persuade them to vote for you because they don’t like the other lot, or because you have made some mud stick to their candidate.

I think individual people can make a difference in politics – look at the way Caroline Lucas has used her seat in Parliament to raise a much-needed voice against austerity and for a progressive and sustainable alternative. And look at how Jason Kitcat’s managerial style has led the Green group on Brighton & Hove council into a catastrophic confrontation with the workers at Cityclean.

But I think policies and ideas are more important. If you are asking to be elected, you need to be able to put forward your own policies clearly, not just slag off the other lot.

Let’s try something different

During the Hanover & Elm Grove byelection campaign, I will be asking all candidates to give me their views on some key issues for the ward and the city. I’ll publish any replies here, so everyone can see them, and courteous debate will be encouraged in the comments section. Maybe we can use this byelection campaign as an opportunity to learn something from each other.

3 Comments on “Elections: a wasted democratic opportunity”

  1. Dani says:

    I should have included some more ideas for making this election different:

    I’ve already suggested on Twitter that canvassers report the issues voters raise with them on the doorstep, and share their party’s policies on those issues, rather than simply saying what a successful evening they had. I’ll be looking out for reports like that and sharing them further, to promote political discussion during the election campaign.

    I should also have mentioned Simon’s pinterest collection of election leaflets. All parties’ election literature should be viewable there.

  2. Gavin Ayling says:

    It’s a shame that the people didn’t vote for PR, then this wouldn’t need to be managed. But completely agree that the ideology and intentions of the candidates *should* be how people are elected.

  3. […] Neil’s power question – what is the Green Party trying to achieve by standing for election in a seriously dysfunctional democratic system? Where does power actually lie in a local authority? Is it possible to do things […]

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