Thinking of standing for election or re-election next year? Helpful questions to consider

This May’s council elections saw many positive signs of continued progress for the Liberal Democrats, including the fourth set of net gains in a row (something previously achieved back at the time of the Iraq war) and the number of Lib Dem majority councils recovering to the number it was before the party went into coalition in 2010.

There were also promising increased in candidate numbers in both Scotland and Wales. Overall, though, we still stand in noticeably fewer candidates than either Labour or the Conservatives across the country.

So we need more people than usual to think about standing next time, and also more people than usual to encourage others to think about standing too.

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’s an update of my seven questions to ask yourself if you are thinking of standing in the elections next May or helping someone else think about it:

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 one 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.

8 responses to “Thinking of standing for election or re-election next year? Helpful questions to consider”

  1. This is great advice Mark, and valid for people who are already thinking of becoming councillors. But I fear it would discourage people from standing rather than encourage them to fill all those uncontested seats you complain about in the first para.

    How do we entice more people to stand as a councillor? What emotional and real rewards does it bring? Is it worth the scarifice of time and fmaily life? Why should someone invest time and money (albeit the party’s money) in fighting a “hopeless” seat ?

  2. Mark, Thanks for this precis of advice to candidates and councillors. Co-incidentally I emailed my district colleagues yesterday with a breakdown of the target of votes needed in each district ward to help me retain my county division next year. How many votes can come from members; how many from others in households of members that might be expected to vote for us; how many do we need to find from canvassing; how many from specific groups such a students; other residential groups including forces families and what was the result last time? I am lucky with an MP with high visibility and good local recognition on doorsteps, but will be monitoring how the new Labour leadership team goes down with voters. It would help if we had a ‘leader’ even if for a fixed period before an election. Anyway starting now makes the job easier, but it still all comes down to what shape politics is in next May.

  3. I’m with Rachel and looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Looking here https://lgiu.org/local-government-facts-and-figures-england/. It seems there are enough primary and secondary council seats open to us to mean that 1 in 5 of our members would be needed to fill them all but let’s say 1 in 10 for control. Also looks like if we went down to town and parish councils (not always political of course but a bit of a training ground) it might take all of our membership to fill them all. ( Not advocating a 1 party state at least not a compulsory one!)
    Anyway, it’s a big selling job that needs to be done and probably a better lower down support network and systems for councillors and would be councillors. Say what you will but for the responsibilities they have and the hours that are needed I don’t think many councillors are paid enough. Boundary changes to increase ward sizes and populations will only make workloads higher.

  4. I agree with Rebecca. On the whole, my experience is that the Party just about manages to fill candidacies in winnable seats with people prepared to do the job if elected and who would do the job pretty well. More good candidates would be welcome, of course. But the vast majority of uncontested seats could not be won that time round if we did find a candidate. So the main point to address in trying to increase the proportion of wards or divisions contested is to find more people willing to stand with no appreciable chance of being elected and to overcome attitudes in a minority of local parties hostile to “paper candidates”. The questions you ask would tend to put off paper candidates, even if the same people, four years on, may have got the bug and want to fight to win.

    • The evidence from last May is rather different Simon – ALDC estimate that we missed out on around 300 additional gains by not having candidates in all the winnable seats. So we need more of both types of candidates – those who want to be councillors and those who are happy to help make up the slate.

      • This year we had to find + 90 candidates in Wiltshire (we had agreed not to oppose 4 progressive Independent Councillors and the Greens in their single target Ward) We got to 90 and could have had 91 (Wiltshire has 98 Wards – we conceded 3 more to the Greens in return for 15 Targets/Tough defences on new boundaries that they did not stand in – we won 11 of the 15. There were no Greens elected on Wiltshire but 27 Lib Dems (+6) won on the highest Countywide vote share in England. We had a key focus on our intitla cut of 50 Target Wards to find candidates starting +2 years ago. We also had a dedicated workstream on our “just on the ballot paper” candidates. We rang through our members and registered supporters in our weakest areas and then went to branch/local party officers who were not already standing in all areas (answer 91 candidates). There is no substitute for starting early, encouraging talented people to step forward (our new and larger Group is significantly younger and much more diverse – some taking safe Tory seats on swings of over 30% in record voter turnouts!) and really encourage them to join our Party if they share our values. Wiltshire is a big place. All our candidates met regularly on Zoom throughout the pandemic as did our 20 strong campaign co-ordinating group (we had a smaller core campaign team) New people were drawn into our manifesto creation and all candidates were involved in approving it. Create the opportunities, boost the engagement levels, use the technology to reach those for whom travel is a challenge in rural areas and keep asking people to stand – starting today!

  5. Candidates should also be quizzed on their attitude towards recruiting new members and especially new helpers. If they insist that they’ll deliver all their leaflets themselves, where will they find the time to knock on any doors? And if they say it’s not their job to build up a core of deliverers to get leaflets or Focuses out, then whose responsibility do they think it is?

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