Local Election Editorial: Pulling Hippopotamus Teeth

Local elections are usually a piece of cake, unlike General Elections.  Three or four groups of people, all trot out the usual party focuses, and in the case of the reds and blues, accuse each other of atrocities or inbuilt weaknesses.  Everybody puts out their election material, we publish it, everybody votes, then comes the regret.

This year it was like trying to catch butterflies in a hurricane, or pull hippopotamus teeth.

We’ve got a lot more going on in Belper this year, a lot more to object to, and shortly before the election Barnuming began, the Conservatives on the council decided to enrage a massive cross-party section of the town by saying, “Hey, yeah, build some more photocopy houses – would you like the medieval meadows, or the bit that’s in the Domesday Book? We don’t know how to choose acceptable sites for building in time, so have ALL the nice fields. Money…money…money…money…money”(not a real quote).

But it’s not the flim-flam and fisticuffs that have been accompanied by the Wicked Witch of the West theme from Wizard of Oz.  It’s the leaflets.

Well, not just the leaflets themselves, but the communication.  Kinda like trying to shout home from the International Space Station, not because the satellites are all broken, or NASA got its lecky cut off, but because Ted’s doing personality quizzes on his phone, in the loo, and forgot that he had a job to do.

Election material usually turns up, with a few exceptions.  There are people knocking on doors, everybody gets the leaflets through the letterbox – some read, and some creatively mutilated and cursed with fire.  And Nailed doesn’t have to do a lot of legwork to get at what is being offered. People send it to us, or it is posted online. We like this.  It’s public.  Everyone should be able to see it, right?

Not this year.  This year, they all seem to have realised that they had been operating under functional parameters and rectified the situation.  Overcompensated even.  This year, when the legwork is just my legs, I had to complete the 12 labours of Hercules, several triathalons, and a humiliating attempt to do It’s a Knockout in a Mr. Blobby suit full of jelly, and ants.

To be fair right off the bat, because they were, the Labour Party did well.  As soon as they knew we were in election mode, they sent us everything for Belper.  Then they came back to correct errors before we published.  They also dealt with a candidate being suspended pending investigation in a professional, prepared and dignified way. Awake, aware, organised, and ready. Although they didn’t send me the material for Kilburn, Heage and Duffield.  If the others were the same, we could go to press in time for the Belper postal voters to be properly informed…

… whistles, checks clock, mows the lawn, builds an ark …

… but the villages would still be stuffed.

Then our Local Democracy reporter managed to get some fairly appropriate responses on our big focus of the campaign – the Green Belt, except, ironically, from the Green Party.   So I chased that up first, and there was a response in a day, two weeks late, after we’d published.  Having had no response through emails, I had to contact a candidate I knew personally to kick that off.  Not the most professional route, I admit. But I had nothing, and nothing is not acceptable.  They claimed to not have received any communication from two different sources.

As the Green Party chased each other’s tails for who had the election literature in a usable format, I had to resort to social media to track down the other parties, because none of them have listed contact numbers locally, except for the Conservative party, who have the wrong person listed, and, unwilling to give a journalist the number of the right person, swore to get the right person and get back to me.  This never happened.

UKIP, who don’t have a website, responded fairly quickly through social media (after I contacted their HQ), to tell me that they don’t do localised promises.

“our website is being developed right now but won’t be available for the Borough Council elections. We are not doing specific candidate leafleting as we haven’t found it to be effective in the past. We do have two more general UKIP leaflets which we will be distributing this weekend in some areas, I can scan these and send them to you if you’d like to have them. We believe that we can reach more people by using social media…”

How UKIP’s national focuses translate to a Borough council, as councils don’t deal with those issues, was not explained.

As I stumbled through these Indiana Jones trials of finding the one true path which would lead me through the wall spears and dissolving floors to the booby trapped treasure, I was reminded of the first time I did this, in 1995, in the days when we had to lay out the newspaper by hand, and send the massive folder by motorbike courier to the printer.  In those days without mobile phones or normalised email, I had to go and sit outside offices and wait for people to return, and I began to wonder if I should do that again.  But there are no recorded addresses either, unless I wanted to go hit up the homes of candidates up for re-election.  Those addresses I can get.  I’m not this creepy and unsettling though, so I kept scaring the cats with inventive new curse words and trying again.

The Liberal Democrats responded next.  Not to the forms filled in on their website, in lieu of actual contacts, but from the local party Facebook page.  The response to my request was, “I’m not a candidate or agent in the election why would I have these” (sic).

>head, banging on desk
>maybe I should go back to teaching

The rogue running their Facebook page first told me he’d get himself removed from the page, and then offered to try to get someone who was really a Liberal Democrat, from 3 year old contacts, to contact me.   This never happened either.  I phoned their HQ.  They politely said they’d sort it out.  They didn’t. Again I had to go to a candidate whom I knew personally, who immediately sent me an all purpose photograph and general leaflet.  Yesterday, absolute maximum what-on-earth-are-you-doing deadline day, one of the forms was finally responded to – they sent me a conversation between themselves of trying to organise sending me the information, but failed to attach the actual election material.  I laughed, but by this point it’s hollow.

… waiting …

The Greens sent me nine files of the same candidate.

Amber Valley Conservatives ignored contact by email, so I hit them up on Facebook too. They bluntly dismissed me with the instruction that for Belper I have to contact the Belper Conservatives.  I explained that it wasn’t just Belper, but the whole DE56 area.

… silence …

So I contacted the Belper Conservatives on Facebook. 2 hours later I was assured that this would be sorted out.  But only for Belper.  Sorry Kilburn, Denby and Holbrook.  Sorry Heage and Ambergate.  Sorry Duffield.

Before the Belper Conservatives got their Belper literature to me, the Labour party provided us with half of it.  Not kidding.  Their opposition was more organised with their literature than they were.

After they tried to resend the forgotten files by pasting the file location on their own hard drive into emails, as if they were URLs, I’ve finally got the Liberal Democrat files this afternoon, a day after the extended absolute deadline.  Unfortunately they have only sent Parish election files, not the more important Borough Council candidates. I give up. I have also been directed to Green Party profiles, as they do really only have literature for one candidate.  I still don’t have any candidate information for Kilburn, and Heage, but have some for Duffield.

Sadly, all of these tripwires and sinkholes have led to the postal voters not being informed before they had to vote.  An issue which has been commented on to Nailed, along with plaintive cries of non-postal voters not being informed, and leaflets not being delivered this year. I swear I’ve done my best here.  I feel like Artax, sinking into the Swamp of Sadness.

The local parties, who didn’t do the work to inform the electorate in their wards, should be ashamed.  Lack of money for leaflets is understandable in the current political and economic climate, but that should have sent them all straight to us, to fill in that gap.  Instead they had every portcullis they could lower locked down, the gates manned by the court cooks, and no provisions inside the castles.  The lack of organisation, the difficulty they had built in to being able to communicate with them, the lack of foresight and planning, the lack of consideration of press – all reflect poorly on the parties standing.  The fact that only the Conservatives put out any literature in time for the postal voters is also a massive problem. I got two leaflets delivered to my house (in the North ward), a Conservative one before Easter, and a Labour one yesterday.

One last hurdle in this epic quest for the most reviled, yet useful, letterbox litter, was how Belper is served by groups and pages on Facebook.  In desperation to inform you, I posted requests and links to our election articles on the Belper group and Spotted: Belper.  Members of these spaces were asking for the information, but the managers of these community spaces deliberately stood in the way of having an informed electorate.  Belper removed three article links claiming “self promotion”, Spotted just completely ignored me.   Belper is run by one person, Spotted may well be the same but this is hidden.  Obviously, censoring to control what they think is “relevant to Belper” is not really ethically sound for communities on any scale.  The posts were not in breach of any of their rules, and promoted only public knowledge.  Tilting at windmills perhaps, but as these spaces have, of late been focused on either demonising “problem people” or trying to silence particular topics, I am concerned about the freedom of expression and freedom of information for this town.  I am also concerned by a few shrieking voices desperate to stop all talk of politics.  Residents need to be aware that EVERYTHING is governed by politics.  It matters much more than only having nice thoughts, or only getting to shame the neighbour who left a sofa on the lawn for a week.

So next year, I am considering two things for Nailed:

  1.  we can have a pop-up politics group on Facebook, which we hope all of the candidates will join.  They can post their election material there, and they can see all of the concerns of the Belper people.  Engagement with concerns is a personal choice, but we need a hub where an individual is not setting an agenda
  2. we can organise and host a proper hustings, where candidates can speak and be questioned in person

We can, as a community, do better than this.  We do do better than this, with every possible aspect of community life, except for having a properly informed electorate.

In the meantime, I would politely suggest that only one of the local parties is properly organised.  Leaflets alone are not the way to inform an electorate.  Sort your websites out.  Choose contacts which will be checked.  Put them on the websites.  Update them if they change. Answer the phone.  Respond to the email.  And have these files ready.  Make sure those files are not PDFs, which take hours to deconstruct. Really, you should all be sending out press releases with this information, EARLY … unless you want to keep it secret.

These are not bad, or poor quality people in the main.  I know many of the candidates, and their party helpers, from most of the parties, and they are mostly good, kind, well meaning people.  It is the party organisation and lack of adequate planning which is the problem.  This can be fixed.  Please fix it now, because we have another election this month and we need the information NOW!

The information we do have for the local election will be with you all shortly.  Hopefully our other election articles have been helpful while you waited for information.  We are very sorry that it is incomplete and arrives so late.  They all promise to save the Green Belt – so if that’s your issue, you have to decide which party you trust to do that.

The election is on Thursday 2nd May.  Please make time to vote, for any candidate who is saying what you truly want.  It does count.  As a floating voter, unaffiliated with any party, I would like impress upon you that the only thing which keeps the council as a two party system of Conservatives and Labour, is believing the lie that you help Party B by not voting for Party A.  With only two parties, the one with the most seats can usually just steamroller its own agenda through the simple majority vote system.   If you support Party A or Party B, you’re sorted.  But if you really want to vote for someone else, don’t let people bully you into voting against your beliefs.  Who you vote for in council elections doesn’t have any impact on the governance of the nation itself; this is not a General Election.  Vote for who represents YOUR values for Amber Valley.

Clare Washbrook

Professional editor, journalist, writer. Lived in Belper for nearly 2 decades BA(Hons) English/Theatre, Post-grads in Journalism, Ethics and Law. First an editor in chief in 1995. Community affiliations: Poppy Installations for WWI Centenary, Belper Goes Green, formerly Amber Valley Solidarity for Refugees. No political party memberships.

5 thoughts on “Local Election Editorial: Pulling Hippopotamus Teeth

  • 29th April 2019 at 7:42 am
    Permalink

    What a great article, plenty of feedback and helpful suggestions. Sorry you didn’t get your Labour Election Address until a few days ago, not sure what happened there as we did try and deliver 11,000 leaflets before the Postal Votes arrived. Our leaflet aimed to give voters information about the candidates for their wards and a two page spread on both Borough and Town Manifestos. We have a Facebook Page that has been dedicated to local issues for the last four weeks, we knocked on doors in all the wards to talk to voters, the only Party that consistently does that even in non election times. We had a some Street Stalls on King Street, again something we do throughout the year. We have done our best to be responsive to voters and the media when requests for more information have been made. But we take your point we could do better, we do organise public meetings but Election Hustings would be good, we are planning a proper Web Site for the local Party so we will move on that and we do have a Campaign Organiser so in future we will make sure you know who that is with contact details. The whole Brexit mess has made it difficult to get some voters to think about the local issues but we have argued that who runs our Town and Borough is important and voters holding their local councillors to account is what this election period is all about. It will all be over in a few days, except of course if Labour wins control of Borough and Town, then it will be a new beginning.

    Reply
  • 29th April 2019 at 8:56 am
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    Only the Labour leaflets and 1 Conservative leaflet have been posted through our letter box!
    Too late for the others now we have posted our votes off after looking at the only information available to us!

    Reply
  • 29th April 2019 at 3:27 pm
    Permalink

    You should write a book Clare. It’s bestselling comic/tragic material.
    By the way, I can’t find the posting for Belper North candidates. Sorry!

    Reply
  • 30th April 2019 at 4:37 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve found it!

    Reply

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