Toni-Ann Gurdon volunteers at a food bank – but hopes to become a councillor to change things in Lewisham. Image: Supplied
When polls open on Thursday, the national conversation will centre around what a Partygate-inflicted drubbing might mean for Boris Johnson’s premiership.
That is an issue, but it’s not the reason you should care. This isn’t just about choosing the best party to manage your bins – these elections are a battleground for the issues affecting people’s lives.
Dismayed by what they see around them, a growing number of ordinary people feel compelled to put themselves forward as independent candidates. The Independent Network, an organisation helping people to run as independents, says three times more candidates have come forward than did in 2019.
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And when the counts are done on Friday, they could find themselves saddled with the unglamorous life of a councillor.
We spoke to normal people running as independent candidates across the country to find out why.
Toni-Ann Gurdon used to rely on a food bank. Now she volunteers at one – We Care in Lewisham, south London.
“My whole life I’ve always experienced being someone that’s low income. Even as a child I remember times where I could only eat cereal for the week, or noodles, and I found it exciting because I thought my mum was just letting me eat what I like,” Gurdon tells The Big Issue.
“But really, it’s because we didn’t have money.”
Her work at the food bank led to her frustrations – and led her and five fellow volunteers to stand for election as independents.
“We’ve tried petitions and we’ve tried to protest,” she says. “We’ve tried every avenue other than trying to get into the council ourselves and making our voices heard by being councillors and representing people.”
Gurdon hopes that using her experience – practical ideas she knows can work – will bring something that’s missing to local government.
So does Monica Hone. Two years ago, Hone noticed the leaves on the trees turning brown. It was September, so this struck her as unusual.
“This wasn’t Autumn. They were basically sacrificing branches. Whole branches were dead because there’s no water. That rang alarm bells,” Hone tells The Big Issue.
This prompted the lifelong environmental campaigner to start a new campaign – she now spends two or three hours a day dropping leaflets through the doors of the residents of Cambridge’s Coleridge ward. By her own admission, she’s a single issue candidate.
“I wouldn’t be standing if it wasn’t for water. This isn’t about me,” she says.
“I’m not standing for my own ego, I’m standing on behalf of the river, and on behalf of all the biodiversity that has been killed by the over-obstruction and pollution of our rivers.”
Getting in would, admittedly, be a challenge – but Hone thinks it’s necessary.
“I think it’s just about raising the issue. If I can get in as a councillor, that will tell politicians that this is important, this matters, and something needs to be done,” she says.
Partygate, and the countless other scandals engulfing Westminster, such as Rishi Sunak’s tax affairs, are giving voters a reason to turn away from party politics, says Marianne Overton, leader of the Independent Network.
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“All of that is supported by local councillors of the same party. If people vote for those parties, they are voting for support of that national party as well. They are not separable.” she tells The Big Issue.
The Independent Network does not push candidates towards policies. But on the doorstep, some issues are coming up time and time again – rising prices, pressure from the war in Ukraine, and largely ignored levels of Covid cases.
“In the past people might have voted for a party because that’s what they always do,” Overton says.
“But I think now people are looking to be a bit more discerning and actually look for a candidate who’s going to put their local issues front and centre.”
Things aren’t always plain sailing for community activists-turned-candidates, however. The same anger they hope to use to siphon votes from the main parties can make things hostile.
Ray Barron-Woolford is, along with Gurdon, running as one of the volunteers from We Care. When he turns up at houses and blocks of flats, leaflets in hand, residents shout abuse – to the point he worries about violence.
It’s not until he explains he’s not a main party candidate, and is from the local food bank, that things calm down.
“People are so anti-politics and the apathy is so strong. People are so angry,” he says.
This isn’t because of Partygate, Barron-Woolford says. Conversations on the doorstep reveal how worried people are about eating and affording basic goods. The anger is hardly a surprise.
“Nobody’s coming up with any solutions. What people want to know is how you’re going to make their lives better,” he says.
Not many people vote in England’s local elections. Whereas the 2019 general election saw a 67.3 per cent turnout, just 34.6 per cent of voters cast their ballots in the 2018 English local elections.
Credit where credit’s due: Things are more engaged in the UK’s other nations, where devolved assemblies are up for grabs. The 2017 Northern Ireland elections saw a 64 per cent turnout, and 2021’s Scottish elections a 63.5 turnout.
Perhaps this is because of the stakes. Local elections may give wavering Conservative MPs a reason to get rid of Johnson. But those elected cannot impose a windfall tax on energy companies’ profits, curb inflation, or decide how many missile launchers to send to Ukraine. That said, potholes and bin collections become bywords for the smallness of local politics. But local councils are also responsible for child social care, traffic measures, and social infrastructure.
In Hendon, Franca Oliffe is standing as an independent opposed to ‘Hendon Hub’, a project which involves a grade two listed, 93-year-old public library being turned into a business school for Middlesex University.
In the Wirral, John Ellis is running to protect a local beach, which he describes as a “swampy mess.”
And then there are Low Traffic Networks, or LTNs, which have become so politicised they are the Brexit of these local elections. Listen to their opponents, and they’re a way of making rich streets nicer and robbing businesses of footfall (despite evidence otherwise). To their fans, they’re a small but necessary step towards a greener society that can save lives and take back ownership of streets from vehicles.
They’re divisive, and already having an impact on politics, with candidates both independent and otherwise running on a one-policy ticket to oppose LTNs. For example, in Hackney, which has led the way in the introduction of LTNs, a set of independent candidates, supported by the Independent Movement, are running on a purely anti-LTN platform.
At the core of it all is a belief that current councils and existing politicians aren’t fixing things.
In Burnley, James Anderson runs Depher – a not-for-profit heating company which uses online donations to make sure those in need stay warm. Its fans include Hugh Grant, who has donated £25,000. Anderson feels the council doesn’t listen to people.
So, for the third time in a row, he will be trying to get elected as a councillor and change that.
“I’ve grown up homeless, I’ve been homeless, I’ve been without presents on Christmas morning,” Anderson tells the Big Issue. “You can’t just come from a privileged background and think oh I’ll be a politician because my dad was this or my mum was that, or I was educated at such a school. If you haven’t lived it, you won’t understand it.
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