One of my happiest times in politics was in 2010 when I became an elected Labour Councillor in Village Ward Dagenham, beating the BNP, who had held the seat before me. Local people frequently complained they could never reach this Councilor before me and said “What was the point?” So at that point I was optimistic we had seen off the politics of fear and extremism in my home town, but I was wrong.
In 2014 Phil, Lee Waker and I faced UKIP in our ward. Nationally they were appearing on the ascendancy and there was a national sense of cynicism about the traditional parties. Lee, who is a well-known and respected local politician, was very unwell so the battle fell to Phil and I. (Lee is recovered as I am writing thank goodness).
The UKIP candidate standing in our Ward was and is a local businessman and lived in the Ward. He had the local media backing him. Many local people reading this would not be surprised at the assertion that our local newspaper is far from unbiased. Additionally, at the time there had been a very bitter local struggle by some candidates in the Barking Labour Party, which meant some former Labour Councillors defected to UKIP. This seemed to give an impetus to UKIP. Indeed they would often come and help UKIP in our Ward.
Village Ward in Dagenham has one of the highest numbers of Resident Associations in the Borough. I would call the people that run these on a voluntary basis, the “movers and shakers” of the Ward. All three of us attend each meeting, to gauge local needs and concerns. Furthermore we would try to work with the Tenants Associations to gain funding, fund projects and further the cause of Estate Renewal. Accessibility as a councilor is crucial. All three of us print our mobile phone numbers and can be reached at any time. These relationships are not forged overnight but residents see we strive for them and we share in their victories and successes.
Housing availability and conditions are a pressing need with our residents. Philip was the Cabinet Member for Housing and was passionate about Social Housing. All three of us advocate for more council housing and I can say, hand on heart, Phil’s work in housing was inspirational. I believe as an elected Councillor, there is an informal contract that occurs. You will gain residents’ trust and yes their votes but only if you genuinely strive to help those communities. This cannot and should not be a year before an election, as quite rightly residents will say “what do you do for us?”
We also knocked on thousands of doors to build and keep that relationship. When we did, loud and clear a message was coming through; Housing was an ever pressing concern. “My child/grandchild doesn’t qualify for housing? They don’t earn enough to buy. Will they ever get a home? “
The Council then devised the Working Persons Option. Essentially this requires a slightly more expensive rent than social renting, (council rents) but provides a route into renting a home.
Vividly I remember knocking on a young person’s door. He couldn’t have looked more puzzled if an alien had knocked at his door. I gave my introduction and it emerged I was known to the family as I had helped the family in another way. He was very frustrated with being in his late twenties still living at home and yet working hard. We suggested the Working Person’s Option to him. Skeptically he went on the list and this May 2015 he moved into his flat. He later asked me, “What can I do to thank-you?” “Vote Labour your whole life”, I replied. “That’s a given”, he said. He later told a young canvasser this flat had changed his life. I have no doubt that had we been unable to offer any hope, our vote and that of his families would be lost to UKIP.
So why UKIP? Unlike others I don’t condemn people who turn to UKIP. UKIP (EU Referendum aside) is the place of “lost hope”. A UKIP vote tells me all faith in the political system is lost and the ability to offer any hope or solutions to voters has faded. The national media’s thirst for stories against politicians helps feed this cynicism for any-one or anything political. If the door remains open for long enough during an angry door canvass exchange, it will emerge that beneath the anger is a story of Zero hour contracts and extortionate rents. People are angry their benefits are diminishing. Meanwhile their local Hospital in special measures and a three week wait for a GP appointment is becoming the norm.
I truly believe when Communities voice their concerns about immigration, we have survived electorally because we listen and engage with their genuine concerns, not rush to judgement. Disparaging their views won’t change the opinion and many times, communities are voicing real concerns regarding a lack of infrastructure and planning.
I remember when the Gordon Brown Story broke of his disdain for a member of the electorate complaining about immigration. It struck me then, that if he had come to canvass with us, we could have taught the seasoned politician a better way forward.
I am not saying racism in any form is acceptable or should be tolerated, but rather, many times the discussion is about so much more. What looks like a knee jerk reaction can often really be worries about housing or provision of local services. UKIP manage to identify people’s fears and exploit this at every chance. As Tom Watson said at a recent event, we need to understand why people are listening to Nigel Farage. Nigel Farage may have a raft or right wing policies, but to his credit he has developed a dialogue and a conversation with the electorate, that other parties have failed to do. Our doorstep engagement and availability to listen and respond here in Dagenham Village ward, is proof it can be done and should be replicated nationally.
Over the last eight years I have also worked for Jon Cruddas MP. As well as being an inspiring politician. Jon has advocated Community Politics for many years. Caroline Badley too, is a real inspiration to me as a proponent of community politics. Jon in his time as an MP has always connected with churches of all denominations and other groups. In recent years, building on this, he has set up his Volunteer Network.
With falling numbers joining political parties (recent months aside), constituents are surveyed on what concerns them. They receive regular updates of news in their communities. With this approach the beginning of a dialogue is happening and this forms the start of re-engaging politically.
In the local elections of 2010 I was the lead for our campaign and had got to know a lot of the volunteers in Village Ward. When approached, they were happy to help us canvass, leaflet and on Election Day, stood at polling stations. Sometimes they may be Church leaders or Head of Resident Associations.
Another example of how community politics can ignite political engagement, involves three young women from a Residents’ Group I had helped. They manned a polling station all day for the first time then went to the school gates and encouraged all the mums into the polling station. It was their status as local people, who could vouch for the hard work of the candidates for local people, that achieved this. They increased turn-out in that polling district to a record high. They came to our thank-you party and helped Jon Cruddas this year on Election Day.
They told us that the UKIP candidate was perplexed and asked, “Why bother with Margaret, Phil and Lee? “The three women’s response was that we had been there for them. We can’t always deliver what is needed but they understood we will try within our power to do all we can to improve life for our constituents. As local politicians who engage with the community we are not irrelevant .We are part of the community.
The UKIP candidate bemoaned his lot to Jon Cruddas at the election count and said he had lost because he faced an army. Perhaps rather, he faced a real Community which included Margaret, Phil and Lee.
Margaret Mullane – Village Ward Councillor and Dagenham & Rainham CLP Secretary