I was a council candidate once. I started out as someone else’s election agent. Then became the paper candidate when that person couldn’t and we swapped roles.
Eventually, we resolved to have a proper go at it, especially when we realised that the former district councillor of some 16 years standing was making a bid for the new unitary authority. Particularly when we knew her as the Countess of Stair.
She clearly thought she was a shoo-in, especially as her main challenger – me – was a single parent on the dole. Yep, class warfare alive and well in rural Scotland.
We thrashed her. The best thing was finding out that lots of women voted for me, some of them for the first time, and folk I’d never have expected to vote for me, did.
So, on the eve of another council poll, this is a long way of saying to all 1600+ candidates (dummy included), I feel your pain. In our four weeks of campaigning, we canvassed – me and the former candidate/election agent – in torrential rain, blizzards and a heat wave. We delivered four pieces of literature, including an eve of poll card. And I visited every single farm, steading, shop, business, council house, bungalow and flat in the ward. At the end of it, I was exhausted. I know how you are feeling right now and remember that sense of being too tired and exhilarated to sleep.
But I’m also pensive, if not a little bemused. For this is the election lacking a sense of reality, where some words and issues have been rather missing from the fray.
First, Labour. In some areas, particularly where longstanding councillors have been seeking re-election, the campaign strategy has been rather Fawlty Towers-esque. Don’t mention the war? Don’t mention the party! And take that rosette off while you’re at it.
So feart have some been about the association with the erstwhile party of the people, the dominant force in Scottish elections since World War II, that the word “Labour” has been expunged from leaflets, posters and doorstep chats. If some of its oldest and hardest working stalwarts see the party name as an electoral liability, then it has deep-seated problems to overcome.
It’s not been the case everywhere, mind. In Edinburgh, Labour has fought a fairly vibrant campaign, largely on local issues and standing behind an imaginative and creative manifesto which offers a shift in mindset and approach. Whoever wins would do well to study it and implement some of the measures, even if they weren’t theirs to begin with. The party – simply for having put the effort in – deserves to do well, and while it will do okay, I doubt it will be enough to win.
And that’s because the strategy of the SNP in particular has been defined by what is missing from its offering, as much as what it contains.
Scotland is a country deeply divided. We have more super-rich people than ever, and more who are simply filthy rich. Despite us being back in recession, some folk are doing very nicely, thank you.
Then there’s the ones who are not. Poverty and inequality mark this country and her people with their sores of violence, substance misuse, joblessness, low self-esteem, poor physical health and mental well-being, crime and neglect. And it’s getting worse. Yet, poverty – and parties’ proposals to tackle it – has scarcely been mentioned in this election. Cos we’re all aspirational now and no one ever got elected laying bare the awful truth of the magnitude of the task ahead. At least, not in this country.
People like promises of more in elections. More money in your pocket, more and better schools, more police on the street, decent roads, improved bus services. Except when it comes to the bad stuff, which of course, they’re going to make sure there is less of.
This election has been fought in a parallel universe, where budgets are not being slashed and local authorities are not about to enter the period of real cuts. Year on year, councils will have less money to spend – in real terms. What we’ve had until now has been little more than a dress rehearsal and we will not see spending back to pre-election levels until at least 2016, just in time (helpfully) for the next local elections.
Few have dared to mention the c-word in this campaign and we voters have colluded with the complicity. Maybe if we pretend the word doesn’t exist, they – as in cuts – won’t really happen. And maybe Scottish voters prefer their politics served with a healthy dollop of dishonesty, preferring instead to indulge them and us in a game of make-believe. That there really will be a council tax freeze until 2016; that we can provide more and better care for a growing, ageing population; that we can keep libraries and community centres open, and build more of them.
Or maybe – as in 2011 – we are working with known knowns and therefore unmentionables. That Labour isn’t an electoral tag worth boasting about in some areas. That poverty won’t be solved anytime soon. That the cuts are coming and there isn’t anything we can do about them.
When I stood in 2005, folk told me they voted for me because I was one of them, that without having to say very much at all, they knew I’d be on their side, that they could trust me to speak up for their needs and interests.
Maybe that’s what’s going on in this election, that there’s an unspoken bond, of people knowing which party is on their side, which will do the best it can not to let them down and which will stand up for them and their families when it matters.
Maybe that’s why the SNP says it best, when it says nothing very much at all.