In May 2012, I was elected as the youngest ever city councillor in Devon. I faced barriers from within my own party and from my electorate during my selection and election, and wrote an extensive blog about my experiences and difficulties here. I know exactly how difficult being a young candidate and councillor can be, so I’ve put together my “top ten tips” for anyone considering standing for a local government positions in their local elections.
#1. Be yourself – dress, manner and social media:
It is so easy to try and act a certain way because that’s how people expect you to act. When I start out in my election, I felt that it was important to be smartly dressed to whatever neighbourhood meetings I dropped into – image, after all, is said to be pretty important. But actually, you learn that it isn’t as important as it may appear to be. Few people really mind what shoes you have on your feet – they are more interested in when their bins are going to be collected. I choose to wear dresses and blazers to full council meetings… but that’s mainly because our meetings are now webcast (teehee). In Plymouth, the first AGM and the Lord Mayor’s Choosing Ceremony is a chance to dress up, but other than that I choose to wear what I feel comfortable in. There are events where it’s probably a good idea to make an effort, but I am a person as well as a councillor, and opting for leggings over a suit doesn’t affect my ability to represent or make decisions on the council.
The same goes with your manner. It is very easy to become frustrated or cynical when you aren’t able to get an answer or a solution to something quickly, and sometimes that can reflect in the way you communicate with people. It goes without saying to be polite to constituents and officers within the council, but it can be difficult to bite your tongue. There are times when residents will take their frustrations out on you, or when you’re knocking on doors and people have something to say about your choice of political party, but that goes without saying when you enter politics. Not everybody will agree with you all the time. But I find, particularly in the ward that I represent, that people appreciate honesty. Do not make promises you can’t keep, but be honest about the routes you will take to try and solve the issue. Nobody expects you to know all the answers – don’t try and fabricate your way out of an answer. If I don’t know, I say so.
Use of social media has been my biggest learning curve of being an elected representative. The controversy surrounding my election meant all eyes were on me during and following my election – journalists from national newspapers watching your tweets mean you become much more conscious about what you’re saying. Your tweets reflect you as a person, especially if any of those you represent follow you. I tweet about national politics and things happening within the council – but I also tweet about “normal” things – what I’m having for dinner, films I’ve watched, my housemates leaving food everywhere. A lot of people, you’ll find, will appreciate a normal person representing them. One who relates to the everyday problems faced by people. Do not give up your identity once you become elected – it was that identity and personality which would have helped you get elected in the first place. But be careful – you don’t want to bring your local party or council into disrepute just because you drunkenly tweet!
#2. Get to know your community:
The chances are, you will want to represent the ward you live in, or one you know very well. I represent the ward where I grew up and have since lived in as an adult. Representing a ward you know and love means you know what the issues are, and what sort of steps you can take to resolve them. Attending neighbourhood meetings before your selection means you can demonstrate your knowledge of the local area – issues which are often unique to certain areas. The same issues, such as parking, come up all across the country, but understanding the dynamics of your ward and the individual needs is important.
The ward that I represent contains three very separate and distinct neighbourhoods, and all three have their own issues and needs. What works for one area doesn’t necessarily work for another, so it’s important you know what you’re talking about. I visited local businesses before I was selected and took an interest in what they had to say. Getting local residents onside beforehand means you’re not a total stranger when the elections come around. A lot of people vote on their political preference, but lots of people also vote based on whether or not you’ve done something for them. Taking an interest and being active in your community means people know you’re serious.
#3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help:
Nobody knows everything. Whether you’ve been a councillor for one year or twenty, nobody knows all the answers, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nobody expects you to be totally clued up, and asking questions means you feel a lot more confident should the same problems arise. Most local parties will have a mentor or “buddy” system; utilise others’ knowledge as much as you can so you know who to go to with queries. Elections are a stressful period for anyone, but its particularly daunting if its your first time. Being an activist and being a candidate are two very different things. It’s normal to feel stressed and, at times, out of your depth. People are there to help. Few people win an election on their own!
#4. Make your campaign your own:
A lot of people will be crowding round trying to help you to form an election strategy, and whilst your local party will undoubtedly have a huge wealth of experience and ideas to help you in your local area, don’t be afraid to speak up with your own ideas. If you know there is a certain issue and you want a leaflet produced for it – ask. Don’t allow others to take over your campaign just because you don’t feel your ideas are good enough. It is your election, and you need to feel comfortable standing on the doorstep and selling yourself – and your campaign.
Take the time to think through what you want to do during your election – door knocking and phone canvassing are a given, but think outside the box. The ward I represent often has low turnout, so we have to be creative about how we get our message out. Election ideas included street stalls in busy areas – complete with party membership forms! – petitions and even a megaphone on election day to encourage people to take notice of your campaign.
#5. Expect criticism:
Elections are tough. From the moment you’re selected to the moment you’re elected – and particularly beyond – you are under constant scrutiny. You no longer represent your own interests, you now represent the Labour Party in the ward you are standing in. Candidates draw criticism for all sorts of things, but it’s particularly easy for people – and the media – to criticise young candidates. I’ve had every insult under the sun thrown at me, from personal insults about my appearance and weight, to assumptions about my intentions – “well it does pay more than McDonalds minimum wage – to criticism for activity in my ward. The advice I was given was ignore it – and try not to read the comments on articles online. Keyboard warriors can be nasty, and however much it can seem tempting to know what people are saying about you, comments can and do get under your skin.
I’ve grown to accept that it’s just a part of being a young councillor that people are automatically much more critical of me. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. It’s not nice, but the sooner you accept that not everyone is wishing you well, the easier it is to take it on the chin when it happens. Having the courage to put yourself in the public eye in such a big way is no mean feat. For every nasty comment online, and every negative comment on the doorstep, there’s lots of people – family, friends, party members – who want you to do well. Remember that! Don’t expect immediate results – everyone ran their first election at some point!
#6. Return favours:
I was in the position where my seat was considered to be safe. In Plymouth, we were fighting to take the council out of Tory control and get a Labour council back, which meant it was all hands on deck, and it was really important to put resources into our winnable seats. That’s just the way elections work. But elections can be pretty lonely places when there’s few of you to thump the streets night after night. Elections are only won when people pull together, so if people come and help you get your message out, make sure you help them out too. You never know when you’ll need help again!
#7. Have fun!
The most important part of an election is enjoying it! There are times where you just want to curl up in a ball and sleep until its all over, but all the hours of thudding up and down streets, snapping letterboxes, being bitten by dogs, having doors slammed in your face and being told “I’m voting Tory” are worth it in the end. The election count is one of the most terrifying but exhilerating experiences of my life. I will never forget the way I felt when my name was called out by the Returning Officer and my local party, friends, and my parents, erupted into cheers and shouts and claps and whoops. I remember being stood at the podium with my speech in my hand and looking around at all the people cheering, tears in peoples eyes, tears rolling down my cheeks. That is a feeling I will never ever forget and the hard work of the campaign was worth every second.
Of course, the real hard work starts after the ballots have closed and the votes have been counted, and I’m still adjusting to life as a 19 year old councillor. But my election has completely changed my outlook on my life, and my capability as a person. My confidence has soared – and I have the Labour Party – and the people of Devonport – to thank for that.