Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
County Council elections are next May, so what can we learn from the Brexit and Trump outcomes?
Their themes were anti-establishment yet, ironically, the leaders were part of the ‘establishment’, employing memorable phrases which played to the frustrations of parts of the electorate. The losers relied on ‘fear’ – fear for the economy and fear of someone with no political experience.
So, don’t take voters for granted. Remainers were complacent, as was the Clinton campaign, which barely touched the key (previously Democratic) states of Pennsylvania and Michigan and took others for granted, leaving them to go red for Trump.
Second, be positive and keep the message short and clear. Voters dislike negative campaigning and personal vitriol aimed at the opposition, however tempting.
Third, select candidates in plenty of time so they engage with their local communities to understand their concerns and be seen to support, rather than patronise, them in resolving issues. This cannot be done overnight, residents are increasingly aware of who genuinely cares and are sceptical of those candidates who are suddenly highly visible.
Fourth, voters have long memories and can tick the box in favour of someone they like and admire, who is always their champion, regardless of which party they represent.
Fifth, don’t believe what you hear on the doorstep. Voters do float and may even choose to stay at home (as many Democrats did) because they are complacent or they lack the incentive to turn out. The EU Referendum had the highest turnout of any recent vote, because the electorate felt it had real power.
Finally, don’t believe the polls. People are in the mood for change, and are prepared to take risks to achieve it. Labour has a vast membership under Corbyn, so it would be dangerous to dismiss him, despite unfavourable polling; he is an ‘outsider’ just like Trump, so be prepared for the unexpected. Counter it by honestly evaluating the successes and failures of your own administration to ensure that public money is properly focused on essential services and what needs to change.
One of the electorate’s pet hates is ‘money wasted’, so crack down on costly and unnecessary vanity projects, VIP events which exclude the public who have to pay for them, and ban the use of consultants, including ‘employees’ recruited on tax-avoiding flexible ‘consultancy’ contracts. Think twice before giving a Chief Executive approaching retirement an 11 per cent increase on an already high salary, eight times the average local wage, only to infuriate residents who have to fund it and the massive pension which accrues as a consequence.
Local government should be about fairness, rather than self-interest, serving the people, not the elite, who often don’t even live locally.
With Devolution looming in some areas, residents will want to be assured that this will not create another tier of bureaucracy, with yet more highly paid executives, which is even less accountable when it comes to delivering what really matters to them: education, housing, social care, road maintenance and collecting rubbish.
If Parliament is reducing the number of MPs to 600, down from 650, it’s time to reduce the number of councillors. Too many are now earning their living by sitting on more than one authority, which means that, with special allowances, it is not unusual for some to be paid considerably more than the average local wage – this is unsustainable, when incomes are barely increasing, but council taxes are inexorably on the up. Is this fair? The electorate won’t think so when it realises what is happening, and the opposition will make sure it does.
Too late to implement for 2017, this should form part of any Conservative manifesto because there is no justification to retain the status quo in most areas, as has been proved in parts of Suffolk, where authorities have reviewed boundaries,cutting councillor numbers, as well as formed joint management teams, saving millions annually.
Isn’t it also time to introduce a form of retirement for councillors? It’s not unusual for them to serve for 30 or 40 years, or even longer, which means that younger people don’t bring fresh ideas to the table. That is also unfair, adding to the sense of exclusion.
Remember that local elections can be influenced by national events, as well as local, providing an opportunity to give the incumbent government a good kicking.
HS2 will inevitably be a challenge for authorities along the route, as will the plans for Heathrow expansion. The NHS is another topic likely to come into play, with hospital closures and changes to maternity and emergency care being debated. And, the Prime Minister has committed to triggering Article 50 before the end of March, which will delight Brexiteers, but annoy the 48% who voted Remain, opening the door to Liberal Democrats now demanding a second referendum. However, a big positive is that unemployment is at its lowest for more than a decade – something to celebrate in any campaign, albeit raising more concerns about immigrants contributing to the figures.
There is no doubt that many people feel excluded, and for good reason in areas equivalent to America’s Rust Belt, where education is poor and investment in new industries to raise living standards lacks drive and vision, so everyone in public life needs to reach out to them otherwise their disaffection will further manifest itself in rebellion.
People who never vote have been inspired by the recent successes, giving them a taste for shaking things up. Ignore this anti-establishment trend at your peril.