Did you imagine that getting elected in a rural area involved stroking sheep and milking cows? Well, think again! It’s all about localised people contact. This article explains how and why.
I first got elected in Gloucestershire in 1993 – the heady days of John Major and his ‘cone hotline’. Since then – with a gap in the middle – I’ve been elected 4 more times in the Cotswolds, an area that epitomizes England’s countryside. Quaint villages and hamlets, feudal estates and glorious scenery make this a famous backdrop for campaigning.
But the message to this story is that highly politicised rhetoric (pointing out the downsides of Tory governments) doesn’t work if you want to get elected in a naturally Conservative (large and small c) area. Instead you have to get embedded in communities, working hard on the things which they care about and standing up for them against bureaucrats, faceless utilities and ‘the powers that be’.
Let me explain. When I first moved to my current home near Cirencester I quickly realised that living next to a main road had its downsides – speed and noise detracted from the beauty of the countryside. What’s more I also found out that my neighbours felt the same way. A call to arms was needed! Letters written to the existing (remote) county councillor were followed by joining forces with locals to get the speed and noise down. It led me to think, “I’d really like to get elected to the district council’.
Roll forward to 2007 and I won my seat on Cotswold District Council by 4 votes (and 4 recounts) in a ward, which had never elected a Lib Dem councillor before. How? By already doing things on the ground for a year before the election, talking about the issues people cared about (roads, council incompetence and calling for better recycling) and being seen again and again in the villages. Not rocket science but not perhaps what most who join political parties think they will be doing.
In other words, I didn’t ‘rant’ about Tories or Labour – I pointed out how the local council could be better but primarily it was about me ‘getting things done’ (more on that strapline later). I was effectively doing some of the councillor role before I got elected.
Once elected, it was all about getting to lots of parish council meetings, listening, doing surveys, getting in the press and putting my head above the parapet on behalf of residents. The latter came with added vitriol from local Tories and constant pressure from them to ‘toe the line and be a good chap’ but local people did appreciate someone standing up against ‘the Council’ and fighting their corner.
It all paid off in 2011 when I was re-elected with a much bigger majority (bucking the national trend with Lib Dems being wiped out due to the Coalition). Spurred on by this, I decided to stand for Gloucestershire County Council – and I didn’t make my task easy by choosing the area I lived in. This time, an 18-mile long true blue area that had never elected anything other than a Tory.
Thus followed 15 months of hard work – campaigning on the things people worried about (over-development of villages, real concerns over speeding traffic and accidents on rural roads, keeping in touch regularly even though I wasn’t yet the county councillor).
Election day 2013 saw me win by 59 votes – a night when the Tory sitting councillor uttered the immortal words to his colleagues “How did you let this happen?!”
And since then I’ve been re-elected with a majority of 784 votes. How? By sheer hard work, by relentlessly focusing on the issues which residents raise and care about and by keeping in contact.
Keeping in contact does of course mean the traditional ‘Focus’ newsletter but also regular posts on my Facebook councillor page, tweeting every day and alerting the media to local stories which they would be interested in. Not only that but calling residents meetings on crime, road safety, noise pollution. Showing community leadership and making sure that none of the 18 villages I represent is forgotten. It means lots of driving around and lots of evenings out but nothing comes easy as a Lib Dem in a Conservative place.
But most of all, it’s been a story of getting things done for people, being reliable and available. Surely this is what any councillor should do – it’s just magnified in the rural context.
And no sheep stroked yet, but I do admit to taking a selfie with a lamb!
Cllr Paul Hodgkinson is Group Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Leader of the Opposition on Gloucestershire County Council. He is the councillor for Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach. He tweets @paulcotswolds