This May’s council elections saw two signs of Lib Dem performance headed in the right direction – more candidates, and a small net gain in seats, making it three years of net gains in a row for the first time since the Charles Kennedy era.
There’s plenty more progress still needed on both fronts. The Lib Dems still stand noticeably fewer candidates than either Labour or the Conservatives in England, and next year also sees the all-up council elections come around in Scotland and Wales. So I hope that in addition to more people than usual thinking about standing, more people than usual are also encouraging others to think about standing.
Of course, saying yes to standing isn’t the right answer for everyone. There’s a whole bundle of factors that go into making the right decision, from the electoral through to the personal.
In particular, knowing what it takes to be a good candidate and then a good councillor is vital to winning elections – and to then making something out of the opportunity the voters have given you.
So here are seven questions to ask yourself if you are thinking of standing in the elections next May:
What will you do differently from a councillor of another party?
There are decent people who will be conscientious and work hard in (just about) every party, and even in the most rural of wards, there is more than one person who is local to the ward. So what will you bring to it that makes you more than just a good councillor from any old party? What makes you a Liberal Democrat in how you go about the role?
What do you want to achieve for the ward?
Winning elections is a means to an end. What will you do with the power and publicity opportunities that even the humblest of backbenchers in the most ostracised of opposition groups get?
How long is it since you went to the least visited part of the ward?
In a rural ward, it may be a clutch of farms flung out on a track a long way away from the rest of civilisation. In an urban ward, it may be a block of flats hidden away behind a locked gate with an intercom. But wherever it is – your job as a councillor requires you to really know your patch, probably better than anyone else alive (save for any ward colleagues if you have them!). If even you are neglecting an area, then chances are there are people there who feel left out and also issues there that aren’t being tackled.
How well do you really know which issues concern people in your ward?
Do you know the name of the MP? Bingo – you’re already more politically informed that the majority of voters. Yes, really. Most people spend very little time thinking about the council and even less time thinking about politics. That doesn’t mean neither matter to them. But it means their priorities are driven by their lives, their families and their concerns, not by the strategic integrated framework for holistic service delivery.
What’s your two sentence answer to “Why should I vote for you?”
All the above should give you a good idea of the answer, but it’s surprising how many people don’t really know the answer. Muddling through without a message might get your through – but to survive a tough contest or to do a good job once elected, you do really need to know what you are doing and why.
What are your political and personal weaknesses?
Answer this question honestly – and then ask yourself how much they matter to doing the job of a councillor (almost certainly more than you’d like to admit) and what you can do about them.
Let me give one example: I’ve come across councillors from all parties who, fundamentally, don’t really like talking to strangers. They come up with all sorts of excuses to not go canvassing and to stick with leaflets and doing stuff on the computer. The best admit these mistakes to themselves, and step by step remedy them. The worst? They never really talk to the public, sometimes wing it in a good year and get re-elected – but even when they do, they fail to shine as councillors because they carry on dodging talking to people.
How many votes do you need to win?
If you don’t know how many votes you need, how can your campaign be run efficiently? It’d be like trying to run a business without knowing what the overall profit and loss is.
Don’t fret if you don’t have good answers to all these questions yet: there is still plenty of time for you to sort that. Not many people will score a perfect set of answers to these questions – but good, talented people will recognise what needs doing and get to work. The tough part isn’t having the right answers to all the questions – the tough part is being willing to admit to yourself that you might not have all the answers, and then to start doing something about that.
Once you do, it gets easier and easier from there. So good luck – and have fun!
One final thought: if you want to find out more generally about what winning an election involves, there is 101 Ways To Win An Election.