All of us standing in May’s local elections, or an upcoming by-election, will be thinking about how we appear to the electorate. We are putting ourselves in front of them: our skills and experience, our concerns, campaigning interests and our quirks – the things that set us apart from the other parties, candidates and make us the best possible choice to represent an area and its residents.
Key to this is recognising that there is not a single type of person that will win an election. Any combination of characteristics can lead to a successful campaign, our job is to find the bits of a candidate that we feel work best with the electorate and promote them. We should not be forcing people to radically change themselves, there’s no need.
At this stage of an election, it is probably too late to completely remodel yourself in the eyes of the electorate. In an ideal world, they should have a good idea of your main priorities. This may be boosted by some knowledge of your background, both personal and professional, or an understanding of what brought you into politics. This is covered in our messaging advice.
In some places, it may be that you are indelibly linked with a particular issue or cause. The ‘Champion’ moniker is an often used but still powerful descriptor when making the link between a candidate and local issue.
What we will look at here are the tweaks you can make at this stage that may endear you to the pool of floating voters.
Another one of our ‘go to’ descriptions when we are building a candidate’s brand. There’s a good reason for this – it still resonates with people. The logic is simple enough: local politics – local elections – local candidate. It makes sense to the electorate that somebody living in the area will understand its needs and residents’ concerns.
This is part of the reason that we are advising candidates against using the new right to not have your address stated on the ballot paper. Whilst there are legitimate reasons that a candidate may not want to make their address public, a final reminder, on the ballot paper, of your status as a truly local candidate could swing crucial votes.
This isn’t to say that it is impossible to win if you haven’t spent your entire life in an area. Any historical links you have with an area are good and should be highlighted but you can also talk about why you chose to move to an area. Speak glowingly about what attracted you to the location and its best features – parks/schools/shops and the community spirit. Yes we want to improve all of these things but it’s a great area – you’re the person to make it even better.
Working hard – getting it done
This is where a year, or more, of taking pictures whilst out campaigning will help you. We know that, in general, the public’s mood towards politicians is one of slight distrust. This can be fuelled by the often repeated criticism that we, ‘only turn up at election time’.
Prove this wrong whilst at the same time reminding voters both that you work throughout the year (and will continue to do so when elected) and particular campaigns that you have had success with or which found particular traction locally. Here is an example of a ‘map’ Focus that highlights your work in the area.
We should be proud of not being the type of politicians that the electorate have become used to.
Straight away we should banish any idea that an older candidate is better than a younger one simply because they’ve been around longer.
What will interest voters is what you’ve done, what you are doing and what you could go on to do. Positions such as school governor, being on the board of a local community centre or involvement with the running of a local sports club or society, show all of the qualities that people like in their local representatives.
Linking your professional experience to your plans locally will always add credibility. If you’ve worked with vulnerable people there’s a clear link to residents who may need your support, if you’ve worked in communications then you can be trusted to stand up for the area and fight its corner convincingly.
This is a good time to remind residents about these aspects of your experience and draw those links clearly. A CV mailing is one way to present all of this information in a clear and broadly non-political way, something which can be advantageous if used wisely.
Think also about what the style of your campaign is saying about you. Two-colour RISO leaflets can give the impression of a good local campaigner but may not achieve the professional, polished image that a glossy leaflet provides. Even your choice of clothing plays into how you are perceived – try a mix of ‘suited and booted’ professional and ‘sleeves up, ready to work’ campaigner and match the aesthetic to the issue and your activities.
Away from it all
I’m sure it may feel at the moment like there isn’t much life away from local politics. Many residents will want to see some balance though and understand the type of person you are away from political life.
There is understandable reluctance from some people to involve their family in politics, especially young children. Whilst it’s undeniable that voters react well to a candidate who is seen to have a stable home life, you have to decide the level to which you’re happy to leverage this.
In addition to family, hobbies and interests can give a more rounded picture of your character. This includes pets – a cute picture with a four-legged friend can help win hearts as well as minds. With the air of cynicism towards politicians that we have already touched on, pushing your more human side could be a savvy campaigning tactic at this point.