Party politics on the ground: a local perspective


Student engagement with political canvassing in York

Article Image

Image by Anna Baxter

By Max Abdulgani

For political activists, campaigning is considered the bedrock of assessing public opinion on party political narratives, public messaging impact, as well as an aspect of the manifestation of democratic representation itself. Engagement on such a basic level with voters on the ground helps to maintain an active understanding of the issues of the day that dominate local and national politics and is used by activists and politicians across the nation. It is true to say that whilst the methods for campaigning have gradually changed over time, such as the development of more efficient data-driven technologies, the ideas around it have largely remained the same. The substance of campaigning usually involves leaflet distribution and in many cases doorstep conversations to determine voter issues and voting intention.

On a local level, York has a very active campaigning infrastructure involving a variety of political party representation. Caleb Pell, a University of York student and Liberal Democrat activist said: “Trust is so important in politics. Whilst campaigning can seem daunting, I find that most people appreciate the time taken to engage with them.”

As a pluralistic city in terms of parties in power, York is one of a kind. The constituency of York Central has a Labour MP (Rachael Maskell), whilst the constituency of York Outer has a Conservative MP (Julian Sturdy). Both constituencies are dominated by a council administration led by the Liberal Democrats combined in a coalition agreement with the Green Party. Whilst this can mean wide representation at an electoral level for lots of voters, it also has the tendency to create hostilities between all parties and increase the level of competition.

Campaigning can often involve party political animosity on local concerns. Examples include the ongoing blue badge ban in the city centre and the issue of reaching Net Zero by 2030; a commitment that York Council is not currently on target to meet according to Labour.

On a national level, however, circumstances are more complicated. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have an informal non-aggression pact and have concentrated their political attacks towards the governing Conservative Party. At the next general election, various prospects including tactical voting in marginal seats have been discussed to oust sitting Conservative MPs. In seats such as York Outer, many are calling for the backing of a single progressive candidate as opposed to splitting the vote with numerous anti-Conservative candidates. This is an ongoing debate amongst self-proclaimed progressive parties.

A common doorstep rumour is that political parties ‘only show up at election time’ when they are desperately seeking votes. The reality is very different. Candidates are selected for a seat 2-3 years out from an election, and the infrastructure to help their campaign is developed by a dedicated team of volunteers and activists contributing to the cause. Most parties campaign several times on a weekly basis depending on ward priorities. Parties can’t win elections in constituencies without a lengthy process of canvassing and party material distribution, as well as wider community campaigns to boost the reputation of parties and their image in public discourse. Two recent and prominent examples in York across the city are the struggle to keep New Earswick bowling club open, and the major refurbishment of Clifton Library.

Earning respect for a political party is no easy task, and involves as much apolitical campaigning as it does political campaigning. For most voters, party political alignment is not a primary consideration. Instead, there are various local issues that dominate communities, to which parties tailor their priorities. In Haxby, that might be the proposed railway development. In Earswick, the outer ring road. In Guildhall, vehicle emission reductions. In Hull Road, student housing affordability and access.

On the subject of campaigning; Anna Baxter, a University of York student and Labour Party candidate for Hull Road ward said: “Campaigning helps me to have a broader understanding of issues that voters face that can vary. For example, in some of York’s surrounding villages with an older populace, issues such as the blue badge ban come up constantly. This has definitely made me more aware of how inaccessible York City Centre is for those who are disabled and vulnerable.”

Political activism is not simply limited to leafleting and doorknocking, but the bulk of an election campaign is taken up with both tasks. Canvassing teaches activists that no amount of voter engagement is too much, that parties should never take for granted politics on the ground when making decisions at a representative level, and that listening to people is the best form of determining local issues and deciding which to prioritise. Regardless of alignment or affiliation, it is crucial to consider these lessons when conducting a campaign. After all, passion for a campaign is passion for a cause.