The Speaker
Sunday, 21 July 2024 – 07:24

Chris Smith: Why I stood for the local elections

Politics is a minority pursuit in the UK. By this I mean those of us who even belong to a political party, let alone contest elections are by definition engaging in something that the majority of the population do not do, or would think normal to do.

This is part of the reason I felt the need to stand for public office, albeit the humble position of Norwich City Councillor but the principle remains.

We are proud in the UK to be a democracy but far too many people are unconcerned with the work that needs to be put in to keep a democracy healthy and vibrant. If democracy really is as important to us as we claim, I thought, then we should try and engage with it like we would anything else in our lives we regard as important. This occurred after reading Isabel Hardman’s excellent book; “Why we get the wrong politicians”.

I had studied politics at A level, then university and then was fortunate enough to teach the subject for a living but my own engagement apart from giving money to a political party hadn’t really extended much further than those I described earlier.

I regularly went through the classic untruths about politicians Hardman takes to task in her book with students, who often rightly were cynical about the quality of our elected officials, or at least the ones we see the most of. As a devil’s advocate response to the classic “all politicians are the same” I would often ask how many of the 650 MPs can we name? Not many, in a class of the politically engaged. So the idea that all politicians are the same quickly fails, but that doesn’t protect the ones we do know and see the most of from the claim that they are far less capable than we would like. This was the moment I started to think “I could do a better job than them” as it was something I often also suggested to students displeased by the quality of politicians on offer.

This isn’t to say I decided to be Prime Minister, but saw the role of an elected politician differently.

It is something to be admired not scorned, it is possible to do good in public office not just divide people. Unfortunately, I made this discovery in 2019 at the height of the Brexit wars in parliament where a government with no majority was paralysed. Tensions were high in the chamber and the media which made me believe they must be on the streets too, meaning my first foray into canvassing for a seemingly irrelevant local election would be a baptism of fire. It wasn’t.

Yes, people were angry, whether they voted Leave or Remain. They were more interested in sharing their views on the national party leaders than discussing local issues, but crucially they were happy to talk and listen. That is one of the fundamentals of politics that is lost by only engaging nationally and not with our neighbours and if as a society we can rediscover that we will be a far happier and healthier democracy.

Each canvassing session ended the same way; with a new faith in my fellow citizens and their willingness to give people a chance along with how impressed they were anyone had taken the time to ask their opinion. It did reconfirm my lack of faith in a lazy and out of touch media that made its money by dividing people but it reminded me why I got interested in politics in the first place; the belief that people fundamentally have the same aspirations of life getting better and that we in the UK possess a democratic system that gives us an opportunity to make that it work better for us.

If we take that opportunity to influence how it works being the key point so I will be standing for local council again and would recommend anyone interested in politics to put themselves forwards too.

There is nothing special about politicians that marks them out for the job other than wanting to do it, so ask yourself “if not I then who”?

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