I recently published an article asking if Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate, Emma Spriggs, was some kind of superwoman. I asked this question because I’d spotted that Emma was simultaneously running for MP in Leeds Central and running to be a local councillor 300 miles away in Bucklebury, Reading. I eventually caught up with Emma to discuss her dual campaigning. What she told me came as a surprise and highlighted the difficulties ‘ordinary’ people have in making it into politics.
Emma will not be visiting Leeds to campaign for this general election despite being the candidate for the party who came second here in the 2010 General Election. Instead she is putting all her resources into standing against the Conservative seat-holders in Reading where she lives.
Emma has no connection to Leeds and acknowledges she is not the ideal candidate to stand in Leeds Central, but she is doing so because the Liberal Democrat party asked her to at short notice and she wanted to make sure that everyone in the area had the chance to vote Liberal Democrat (so for local Lib Dem voters – and there were nearly 8,000 in 2010 – Emma probably is a superwoman.)
Emma says the Lib Dems are not a wealthy party and so have to carefully identify their priorities. Even though they came second with 23% of the vote in Leeds Central in the 2010 General Election it is still a Labour safe seat and, under First Past The Post, they have less to gain from prioritising this seat. Emma was keen to stress that this was not ideal – her party would like to contest every seat with candidates who are able to run a strong campaign locally. Emma says other parties make these kinds of decisions too, but because of their resources it isn’t as noticeable when Labour or the Conservatives do it.
The Yorkshire & Humber Liberal Democrats were the ones who asked Emma to stand here. They won’t talk to me about the reasons, but one thing seems certain – there are not enough people in the area willing and able to go through the process of becoming an approved candidate and then taking on an election campaign.
I asked Emma why there weren’t enough people wanting to become MPs. She thinks it is because the process to become an approved candidate is long and arduous, and then when you are approved it takes many months of canvassing, night after night, to fight an election. This puts a lot of people off, but many people with a family and a full time job simply cannot do it. It can be different for Labour or Conservative Party candidates because they have safe-seats. If you’re high up in those parties you can be put into one of those seats and you’re practically guaranteed to win (Boris Johnson is a current example of a Conservative MP dropped into a safe-seat) – the amount of canvassing you’ll have to do is much lower compared to the minority party candidates who have to put their lives on hold to campaign.
Emma wants to see the processes change to help more people who have had lives outside politics get into politics. She thinks she is the sort of person that the public would like to see as an MP. She’s not a career politician, instead she has run her own business for 20 years and has brought up two children. She has worked to support her community and says she knows what can make a difference to people’s lives.
The First Past The Post system is another big factor according to Emma (I discussed the current voting system with all the Leeds Central candidates in this article). It stops the smaller parties developing and building up their base, and it discourages people from a safe-seat area from campaigning because they know the votes they’ll win will count for little.
The Conservative candidate for Leeds Central, Nicola Wilson (also a business woman with two children) told me she had also found it a difficult journey into politics. She wants to see more ‘ordinary’ people like herself becoming MPs but thinks people are put off by the stigma associated with being a ‘politician’, the difficulties of combining campaigning with family and work, and the situation where you cannot win if you run against a safe-seat candidate.
Bookmaker William Hill is so confident of Hilary Benn winning the Leeds Central seat again that they are only offering odds of 1/100 on his victory – you would have to wager £1,000 just to win a tenner.
Where does that leave me on Election Day? Is it a choice between throwing one more voting slip onto Hilary’s safe-seat mountain, or sending a message of consolation someone else’s way in the hope they don’t lose their deposit? Or perhaps it would be better not to vote at all – a record low turnout (which is on the cards thanks to single voter registration) could be the catalyst for electoral reform.
To help me with this conundrum I asked the electoral candidates for Parliament in Leeds Central what they thought the result would be, why they were standing, their thoughts on electoral reform, and what they see as the main issues in Beeston where I live…
First up was Michael Hayton from the Green Party. Michael is the first Green Party candidate to stand in the constituency since David Blackburn in the 1999 by-election.
Michael feels it’s a stretch to say the Green Party might win here, but with big support from the student population and dissatisfaction among traditional Labour voters, he predicts the result could be a shock to Hilary Benn. His hope is that the Labour party will change their policies when they realise people are looking for real reform in politics – a vote for his party would help achieve this. Michael says people are telling him they want a change and don’t think they’ll get it by voting Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem – so it’s a choice between Green and UKIP (Michael feels that a lot of people are thinking of voting UKIP as a protest rather than out of genuine identification with the UKIP manifesto).
Michael believes that Beeston and Holbeck is one of the areas hardest hit by the financial crisis and austerity. He says marginalisation spurred on by benefits changes and target-driven job centres has made life really difficult for many people and that the quality of some of the rental properties in Beeston is among the lowest in Leeds. He’d love to see more investment in the area because “it’s so vibrant and there are some amazing communities here”.
To Michael and the Green party, the current First Past The Post electoral system is not truly representative or democratic – he says we live in a 21st century society, ruled by a 19th century institution using 15th century procedures. Instead we ought to have fully proportional representation – we have the technology to deliver this. He also believes that young people are far more engaged and knowledgeable than most people realise and, in line with Green policy, the voting age should be lowered to 16.
Labour’s Hilary Benn doesn’t want to make any predictions about the election, but he hopes everyone will exercise their right to vote. In fact he says we have a moral duty to vote.
Hilary voted for the Alternative Vote system in the 2011 referendum and was sorry that it did not pass (AV is not to be confused with proportional representation – an explanation here) – he confirms that Labour have no plans for another referendum on the voting system, but they do pledge to lower the voting age to 16.
He believes all elections should be contested, and that UKIP are doing their best to present themselves as a viable alternative – something the Conservatives haven’t been able to achieve here.
Luke thinks a lot of voter apathy is due to people not feeling they can make a difference, or not having found a party they believe can represent them. He says his party have great support in areas such as Beeston and senses an appetite for real change.
Luke identifies housing as a key issue in Beeston and believes current provision of social/affordable housing is inadequate – he would like to see empty properties put to use to ease the demand.
With regard to the ongoing debates about the Aspiring Communities development on Barkly Road and Asda on Old Lane, Luke feels that strong local opposition is not being listened to and issues are dragging on longer than they should. He wants to work with local people and councillors to implement the wishes of local people – if UKIP fail to deliver then they should be removed from office. Luke says UKIP want to stop the complacency of sitting councillors and MPs – if the electorate are dissatisfied, they should have the right to force a by-election.
Luke says that UKIP’s long-term strategy is to gain representation on Leeds City Council, providing a springboard to success in the general elections of 2020 and beyond. UKIP lost by just 600 votes in the Heywood & Middleton (Greater Manchester) by-election last October, which, according to Luke, proves UKIP can succeed in Labour heartland.
UKIP support the introduction of proportional representation. They have no manifesto pledge to lower the voting age.
Liz Kitching of the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition (TUSC) thinks Hilary Benn is certain to win, but believes he will face a strong challenge from the Greens and TUSC. Liz is concerned that UKIP will gain, but is confident that the student population will not give them much support.
The main objective for TUSC in Leeds Central is to let people know there is an alternative to austerity and a world which continues to be at war. Liz says TUSC are supporting the fight of oppressed people, including those experiencing racism, on zero-hours contracts, or facing redundancy.
TUSC is an anti-war, anti-racist (Liz says the movement ‘finished off’ the BNP and weakened the EDL) and anti-austerity movement. Liz believes ‘austerity’ is a political choice, not an economic necessity, with the objective of taking wealth out of society and giving it to what is commonly referred to as ‘the 1%’.
Liz sees the election as an opportunity to publicise the successes, such as equal pay, maternity leave and sick leave, of the trade union movement – these changes are made law in Parliament, but they came from the movement first.
Liz understands the position of people who say they support TUSC’s policies but plan to vote Labour to get the Conservatives out, but says a vote for TUSC is especially important here because in her view Hilary Benn is a career politician and not a campaigner (TUSC are not opposing Labour MPs they see as supportive of their cause such as John McDonnell and Dianne Abbott).
Liz highlights that Hilary Benn voted in favour of the Iraq war and to say there is no more money for local services – she says he has a very different philosophy to his father (Tony Benn). She concedes Hilary Benn has been of help to some constituents, but argues there are many others he has failed to help. If TUSC were to win here they would open a dedicated office in the constituency offering support and legal advice to anyone who needs it.
On electoral reform, TUSC endorse a reduction in the voting age to 16, but Liz believes other reforms need more thought – she sees proportional representation as being good for left-wing politicians, but it can also let in the far-right (as has happened in Greece, Hungary and France).
Liz says TUSC’s priority is “building confidence among communities to stand up for themselves” and sees the key issues in Beeston as housing and schooling. While new houses are being built, they are PFI houses and the ‘affordable’ rents are not affordable to all. Liz thinks we need a mass council house building programme on brown field sites and says TUSC would bring back the Fair Rent Act. On schooling, TUSC will campaign for local authority provided schooling for all, with no privatisation, and no testing of younger children.
Emma Spriggs of the Liberal Democrats says that although the party received 23% of the constituency vote in the 2010 general election, they have no realistic chance of beating Labour here, but like Hilary Benn, she feels it’s vital for people to exercise their right to vote and participate in democracy – many people around the world don’t have this choice.
Emma believes this year’s election is all about the party who comes third, as they will likely make up the coalition – this further highlights the need for electoral reform. People end up voting tactically rather than for the party they really believe in.
Emma and the Lib Dems are passionate about changing the voting system, and despite their previous attempts at reform being thwarted, they want to renew this fight in the next Parliament – this includes lowering the voting age to 16.
The final candidate I spoke to was Nicola Wilson of the Conservative Party. Nicola is realistic about her chances of winning but, in common with her Labour and Lib Dem rivals, she firmly believes that everybody should vote. She thinks everyone should have the chance to vote for whichever party they want. She says her experiences growing up in Northern Ireland had helped her appreciate the importance of politics and democracy.
Nicola wants to see what happens in this election before seriously considering reform – neither electoral reform or lowering the voting age are in the Conservative manifesto. But she does think that we need to look at the political system because a lot of people don’t feel politicians represent them and they want more ‘ordinary’ people like Nicola herself in Parliament (Nicola has two children and works full time running her business).
Nicola echoes Liz Kitching of TUSC’s criticisms of Hilary Benn, describing him as the archetypal career politician – “if you want to know about politics ask him, if you want to know about real life ask me!” – and thinks ‘ordinary’ people don’t stand for election due to the stigma associated with being a ‘politician’, the difficulties of combining campaigning with family and work, and the situation where you cannot win if you run against a safe-seat candidate.
For Nicola, the big issues in Beeston are jobs and role models for young people. She wants to help businesses grow so they can employ more people, and she wants to make sure work pays more than benefits. She also wants good role models for children to help them and the wider community.
…So, has talking to the candidates changed my mind about voting in Leeds Central when Hilary Benn is bound to win? I wasn’t expecting it to – but it has. The non-Labour candidates are under no illusions about their chances of winning the seat, but they are all passionate about why they are standing and the changes they want to see. I don’t agree with every candidate’s policies of course, but I do respect them all for going out and campaigning in Leeds Central when they know they cannot win the seat. So while I might not have a super-vote, I’m convinced that my vote does matter to them – so I will use it.
But while my engagement has improved this year through talking to the candidates, I now feel even more strongly that we need to tackle the issues of safe-seats and First Past The Post.
It can’t be right that it takes 120,000 votes on average to get a Lib Dem MP while it only takes 34,000 to get a Conservative or Labour MP. Many people in Scotland will vote Labour on May 7th, but there probably won’t be any Scottish Labour MPs on May 8th.
Proportional representation helps smaller parties to develop and politics to broaden and strengthen. Under these circumstances more ‘ordinary’ people might be encouraged to run for election. They might still lose to Hilary Benn in Leeds Central, but the votes they do win will really count.
While the pros and cons of different voting systems are complex (something the big parties exploited in their bad-tempered and ill-informed public debate during the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum), we can at least be clear about the principle. Do we want Parliament to proportionately reflect public opinion, or do we want it to distort public opinion to the advantage of the Labour and Conservative Parties?
If the big parties really do love democracy then perhaps it is time they set it free.
Footnote: the interviews are presented in the order they took place.
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