Now we’ve got more councillors, here’s how we show the difference they make

by Tom Keeley

A major challenge for Labour’s 824 newly elected councillors is to prove to their electorate that the right choice has been made.  In local politics this is easier said than done.  Even the hardest working councillor can be made to look like a one-trick-pony come election time. Avoiding this depends largely on how work done and successes achieved are perceived by the electorate.

Most councillor accomplishments will be small.  Road signs cleaned.  Bulky waste collections increased.  Alleyways cleared.  Double yellow lines painted.  Police patrols rerouted.  And, while there is much more to council politics than this, this is what the majority of the electorate will see the majority of the time.  The little things.  The challenge for local councillors is to present their successes to the local electorate in a way so as to maximise results at the ballot box.

The traditional way of presenting successes is that as double yellow lines are painted we rush out leaflets to the surrounding roads claiming credit.  As potholes are resurfaced, pictures are circulated of the candidate standing by the newly smoothed piece of road.  Night-time door knocks in areas where new street lights have been installed.  The usual.

This traditional way presents success as one-off individual accomplishments.  The problem is that residents do not and will not vote for a councillor simply because there are new street lights on their road.  This is a naïve and commonly held misconception.  Residents want more than this.  Therefore we need a new way of promoting Labour councillor success.  This should present individual accomplishments as part of a larger body of work, maybe even as part of a vision for the local area.

In my professional life I work as a qualitative researcher, which essentially means I make sense of what people say on a given subject; in my case the subject is health and health care.  Stay with me here, I am coming back to politics.  To make sense of what people say you need a structure.  You build this structure by initially pulling out broad themes within what people say, and then attaching or attributing people’s individual statements and opinions to the broad themes.  The structure allows you to make sense of a huge amount of opinions and present a coherent case or argument.  A similar method can be used in presenting local political success.

Firstly, we need to listen.  Through direct mails with reply mechanisms, community meetings and local issues surveys on the doorstep a clear understanding of the broad concerns of the residents can be gained.  This can, and should, be done in conjunction with Voter ID.  For example, in the Birmingham ward of Harborne which I have organised over the last two years, in each doorstep and phone conversation, Voter ID came after a local issues survey, a crime and policing survey, a parking survey or a survey on any number of other topics.  It slows contact rate by about 25%, but notably increases the quality of conversation

From this listening and consulting the broad concerns of the electorate can be understood.  These concerns need to be selected carefully as they are to become the focus of future work and the themes through which this work will be presented.

They have to be the real concerns of residents, and not what we want them to be.  They also need to be concerns that councillors can address, so constitutional reform is probably beyond the scope.  We may, for example, select three broad themes: safer roads and streets; liveable communities and community cohesion.

These themes are then used to categorise and present success to the electorate.  New speeding signs and pedestrian crossings are now examples of the “safer roads and streets initiative”.  As potholes are filled, alleyways cleared and bus shelters repaired that is part of the “liveable communities project”.

Actions taken, and individual successes achieved, are presented as part of something bigger.  Presenting successes to the electorate in this way is infinitely more effective than either a list of individual successes or simply informing residents of one-off successes on their street in isolation.  It rightfully presents each individual success as part of something bigger, something more important.  It gives the perception of action and momentum across the ward.  The resident that is unmoved by the new street lights, may take a different view if those lights are an example of a larger project or vision.

A comparison between potential leaflet headlines and top lines makes the point.  “Labour councillor installs Gordon Road street lights” – versus – “Labour safer roads initiative secures Gordon Road street lights”.

“Local councillor Jones is pleased to announce that street lights will be installed on Gordon Road over the next month” – versus – “As part of her ongoing Harborne ‘safer roads initiative’, councillor Jones has secured funding for new street lighting on Gordon Road”.

Some key points to remember when using this model:  1) We have to consult meaningfully.  The consultation allows us to understand concerns and form broad themes that will resonate with the electorate.  If we make these themes up they will likely not resonate.  2) Select 2 to 4 themes.  These are themes we want to come back to time and time again.  Repetition is key.  3) This model should also not be mistaken as a substitute for hard work.  If work isn’t done and successes are not achieved then this model doesn’t provide salvation.  Nothing does.

Some might view this as spin on a local level.  Maybe it is.  However, in the absence of a strong local media (which is missing or declining in almost all areas of the country) it is up to local councillors to ensure that they are credited for their hard work and success.  If this is not done consistently well, all year round, we leave our councillors very vulnerable at election time.

Tom Keeley is a qualitative researcher and Labour party campaigner. He is responsible for organising in Harborne ward in Edgbaston CLP.

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2 Responses to “Now we’ve got more councillors, here’s how we show the difference they make”

  1. billgav says:

    well mine have a coalition with torys and have given themselves a pay rise may as well have voted libdem

  2. swatantra says:

    Sometimes the personal vote does count, but more often than not its National politics isues and events that determine what happens in local elections. And thats what happened again this time as well the unpopularity of Cameron and Clegg led to a massive swing to Labour. The turnout was derisable. A lot of the 800 owe their seats to Dave and Nick. It can be said with some honesty that both Blair and Brown didn’t do much for local councillors and in fact made things even more difficult for them. And yet these are the very activists that get them and other Labour MPs elected to Westminster.

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