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Pretty – but pretty useless. Review of local election leaflets.

Nouns without verbs, verbs without nouns and adjectives where there don’t belong. These local election leafless are quite pretty, but they sure as hell don’t help you to vote…

And so we get to vote on local issues today. Well, in theory. As a small personal exercise I asked a few friends to send me or email me the election leaflets as an exercise in ‘spot the difference’. OK, that’s a bit unfair, but I was interested to see just how ‘local’ the local elections are. And these are my (entirely unscientific) conclusions.

First, there is generally one overwhelming message that seems to come from most of the leaflets – and that is the reassuring message that the candidate is competent. The ones I’ve looked at demonstrate their competence in some different ways, but the thrust is that the candidate concerned is an effective manager and can operate in a bureaucracy. Many emphasis previous experience as a councillor, or having run something in the private sector or possibly been a manager in a charity or such like. One might expect the message of ‘I can do administration’ to be regularly occurring, but it seems to me that this has gone from being a point of reassurance to being the main message in an awful lot of cases.

Second, there’s a lot of ‘we’ve succeeded/they’ve failed’. This is a purely party matter – either SNP candidates adopt the sheen of a fairly popular national government or the candidates of the sitting council claim they have run it well or alternatively the party not in power in the council points out that everything the council did was a disaster. This is of course normal, but given that a couple of the leaflets came from council areas I don’t know that well, what interests me is I can’t make head-nor-tail of what it is exactly that the existing council has done well/badly. Possibly this is unfair criticism if people know their local politics fairly well, but I think I’d like to explain why something went wrong and why it would be different. Not much of that.

Third there are the photos and captions. These fall into two distinct categories – either ‘I’m human, honest’ (photos of family, pets, hobbies and the like) or ‘I’m connected’ (pictures with people of influence on the national stage or locally). Fine I guess, nothing wrong with presenting your credentials or putting yourself forward in personal terms. It’s just that, once again, it’s hard to read much into these photos. Is this guy really best friends with the First Minister or is he stalking him? Are those community leaders she’s standing next to secretly thinking ‘I hate this woman’? And the family look normal, but who knows – a group photo of the Murdochs might look normal.

Fourthly there are adjectives and verbs. Many people seem to be bold, committed, passionate, caring and suchlike. And there’s a lot of ‘moving forward’, ‘stepping up’, ‘bringing change’, ‘showing integrity’ and stuff like that. But, again to my eyes, the verbs don’t have nouns, the nouns don’t have verbs and the adjectives are like that bloody phone call I keep getting about a crisis in payment protection insurance I don’t have in that they arrive frequently with no warning and don’t help in the slightest. The net effect is that people move forward but to who knows where, we are stepping up but its not clear from where, we’re being brought change but from what to what is mysterious and integrity will be shown but it is not obvious what that means.

Finally (other than the usual stuff about reminding people to vote, and how to vote) it seems to be general practice to try and include one specific (or at least more specific) thing about the local area. ‘I’ll fix that park’ or ‘I’ll fight that closure’ and so on. In a few cases there is something that looks more like a local manifesto, but that rarely occurs on leaflets from the four big parties.

Now, it’s been a while since I paid much attention to this stuff given that I know (or know of) all the local candidates here and am capable of making up my mind without any leaflets at all. And I may be imaging this. But about 10 years ago I helped design the election leaflet for my dad’s re-election as a local councillor. In fact we did two – one had a list of 12 specific things he’d done over the previous four years and then one with eight specific things he would do over the next four. And his opponents put out leaflets challenging what he’d done, promising to oppose some of the things he wanted to do and proposing other things.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a rose-tinted view, perhaps that was an unusual election, but I think someone could have arrived the day before the vote, read the leaflets of the various candidates and from that alone made an informed choice. Surely that should be how it is? I’ve now browsed a good few leaflets and, barring one or two which have been produced by people who are clearly local activists or have strong views on the direction of their council, I honestly don’t think I could make an informed decision about any of them.

In fact, here I’ve been sent a leaflet for the Borders Party (and they’re not even standing here since I’m in South Lanarkshire…). At first I thought it was an advert for an actually party (you know, drinking, dancing…). When I realised what it was I read it with some interest. The pitch was straightforward – vote with your heart and your head because these are all real local people. I tried to work out if they were political at all, left or right, or whether they were entirely apolitical and ready to campaign on local issues. I failed utterly. I kept looking back at ‘vote with your heart and your head’ and wondered how the hell that’s supposed to help me make up my mind. I’m not picking on the Borders Party, it’s just that while many of the leaflets are that vague I at least know who the Tories etc. are.

My conclusion? Local issues aren’t something that anyone seems to want to focus on in this election. Candidates seem to me to be asking to be judged on personality issues and don’t seem to want to engage with local policy factors. And voters are meant to make decisions on a very flimsy basis. I can only reiterate that this seems a real shame to me. Local politics matter – they matter very deeply. But instead of an election which is alive with debate about what is to be done in your community, it is all soft-focus and content-free. That can’t be good.

So if this election campaign was to be judged by its leaflets then you have to feel it’s a bit rubbish. If campaign literature was to be compared with other printed material, you’re not gong to find much Communist Manifesto or Manufacturing Consent out there. You wouldn’t find the equivalent of the comment pages of a mid-market newspaper. You’d barely get to the level of a Jeffery Archer novel. It’s all Hello! magazine stuff. Pretty, but pretty useless.

Robin McAlpine