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When Councillors take to the tweets. Part 3

March 20, 2014

localQuestion 3: Are you local?

This has been made a matter of contention in Dartford – both at parliamentary constituency and council ward levels. But this post isn’t my response to those instances. I go way back on this one.

Friends know that ‘local’ or ‘Place’ are very important to me. They are part of my answer to the question, “Why has my utterly depressing experience of national, and even global, government not made me just give up on politics and democracy altogether?”

My answer is that you can get to grips with problems, chip away at tribal politics, discover lots of agreement, bring back people who gave up on politics, access new ideas, and make small but real differences… and so on and on and on and on… if you genuinely focus on a Place. Why capital ‘P’? A place with an identity and a real centre, but small enough, and with few enough people, for you to really get to know them.

My challenge to any politician is not ‘Are you local?’ but ‘Can you be local?’

The answer might be, “Of course I can. I represent a majority of the people who voted, I do case work for individuals, and I stand up for this place against other places when policies are made or locations chosen, which are good or bad for it.”

Again making it clear that this isn’t about the politicians in Dartford, I would say this still fits an electoral approach where you stand on behalf of a party which you know has majority support, or where you are active in persuading enough swing voters to shift that way, and where your actions once in office are then driven by party loyalty and party policy. So you represent party first, and then Place when it’s convenient. Under those conditions you aim to maintain the local popularity of the party, not necessarily to represent the totality of local people. OK – sometimes these amount to the same thing – or are near enough not to matter, or for people to think that this traditional arrangement is odd.

What’s the alternative? “You try getting elected unless you can persuade one of the main parties to adopt you”. [UKIP has muddied this argument for me, I admit]. Or getting elected without at least some party to hang your nomination on – such as ‘Local Residents’. Actually individuals do get elected against that trend. But when they do, or when a very local party thrives for a time, I’d argue it’s precisely because they have got closer to really “representing Place”.

A lot of Councillors from the mainstream parties also spend much of their time representing Place in the way I’ve described… without thought for party battles.

So how does this relate to “Are you local?”.

I think that being local, in the sense of having lived for a few years in the place where you are seeking to be elected, is an advantage. It’s a head start in understanding people, history and issues. It’s also a head start in actually caring about that Place and those people – as opposed to ‘caring’ for the instrumental reason that you want to be [re-]elected and you want to add a seat for your party. [Yes, of course you can want both – but which are you putting first and why?]. I have come to feel like that about Dartford, somewhere during the last 23 years. I didn’t spot when it happened. But I now care about Dartford, it’s my home, it’s my community – I care about what happens to it and, in particular, I defend Dartford and its people quite fiercely when others make lazy or ill-informed comments. I can’t imagine being able to represent anywhere else than Dartford [in Parliament] or my end of Wilmington [on the Council]. Because there’s nowhere else that I would now be able to draw on those feelings for. To be honest I can’t imagine being in Parliament or on the Council anyway – so this is a bit of a cheat.


  1. You can live somewhere for years and never engage with it or come to think of it as a Place you care about. It can be just your physical surroundings, through which you travel in getting to/from your personal castle. You might, as a result, have practical self-interest in decisions that affect your home or your pocket. But being local in this way doesn’t automatically give you a special status, a right to represent, in comparison to someone else.
  2. Conversely you can immerse yourself in, and engage with, a Place which is not your home. You may have to work harder at explaining why… why that Place? You may have to work harder at dispelling the idea that this constituency or ward is a convenient vehicle, chosen by your party, to get you into office on their behalf, or to ‘get a bit of practice’. But if you “aren’t local” this challenge might make you focus on being more engaged than someone who thinks it’s a given because they live there. It may put you in a position to innovate. It may mean you are free of local factions and vested interests. You certainly need to be seen to be listening hard, and often.

What has this all got to do with tweeting councillors?

It means that a question politicians can ask themselves is, “Am I using social media to maximise the way I represent this Place, by getting new insights into what all local people want, need, know and are prepared to do alongside me?”  You won’t agree with all local people, but you may be opened up to insights, and offers of help or action, which would be lost if you just used social media to broadcast messages. On balance, maybe that’s a new way of being local.

[Note: Twitter has many limitations, if also some strengths, in this field – but I’m referring to ‘social media’ of which twitter can be one valuable component… providing glue, signposts, personal connections, and quick subjective reactions to events] 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy Lloyd permalink
    March 26, 2014 6:38 pm

    As a Dartford Borough Councillor I find the fact that I live in my ward very helpful and I believe I’m a more effective representative because of it:
    – I am able to spot early any issues as I travel through the ward every day and if I don’t spot them my neighbours who know me to be their councillor do.
    – I have a selfish attitude, in that I wouldn’t expect my neighbours to live with something I wouldn’t be prepared to put up with myself.
    – I have a natural empathy with my constituents, given that we are attracted to live in the same area and are of a reasonably similar demographic profile.

    Yes I’m sure it’s quite possible to live somewhere different from the area you represent, and some councillors are very effective doing this. For others who live outside their wards, I question if their motive is to represent their constituents, as they appear to be seeking election in a ‘politically safe seat’ to serve some higher agenda. These type are sometimes prepared to let their residents suffer, either because they don’t spot issues, or don’t have to live there and put up with them personally.

  2. Lisa Bullock permalink
    March 28, 2014 10:32 am

    I get quite cross about this. As the partner of a Cllr who lives *just* outside the ward he serves in, I see the work that goes into keeping up with residents and issues locally. I think, without many exceptions, Cllrs of all political persausions work hard. My partner works full time, and spends almost every evening, and usually both weekend days, either seeing residents in his ward, nosing round to see whats happening, or engaged in representing those residents at council. Now, it can be a huge strain on him – but no one forced him to do it. He does it becuase be genuinley want to make a difference in the community in which he actively participates. He could have stood in his home seat, with a much reduced chance of being elected – and then not been able to effect participation in the same way.

    If you stand as a Cllr for a political party, you are serving a higher machine, safe seat or not. If you were utterly uninterested in assisting that party’s standing in the community, then you would stand as an independant, or form an RA.

    I regularly volunteer in assisting youth services in Swanscombe. I dont live in Swanscombe. Does that make my contribution less valid? I shop in Swanscombe. Friends live there. I use its facilities. I want to try in a small way to assist its community programme. I think the same is true of Cllrs.

    One of my local cllrs lives in his ward. He lives in a part of it which is demographically very different from other parts of it. It doesnt mean he is disconnected from that area becuase he enjoys living in a more affluent part of it. I am sure he ‘walks his patch’, makes it his business to find out about whats going on in all areas of his ward. The same is true of my partner. Hes engages with business, residents, local groups….he makes it his business to know and care.

    Its really easy to label Cllrs, especially those from different wards to those they represent as glory hunters, or accuse them of only serving for self or party. What is harder is to examine the work of those Cllrs, judge them on merit rather than postcode. If you believe that you cant help or represent people who live in a different part of your small borough, I think you have a very odd idea of community indeed.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      March 28, 2014 10:47 am

      Thanks Lisa. I hope the ‘you’ in that last bit is ‘one’ and not me? Otherwise I’ve been at least partially misunderstood and need to clarify some of my post. :0)

  3. Lisa Bullock permalink
    March 31, 2014 8:05 am

    Hi Nick – yes sorry! I mean one, not you!


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