councillors – Tearfund's Policy Blog

May 8, 2013 By Rosanne White

The election count is the last hurdle on the road to success. It follows months of campaigning, knocking on (often hostile) doors in the waning light, drafting leaflets and bemoaning the invention of letterbox bristles. The checklist of local campaigner photos – fine specimens are to be found at – of the candidate pointing sternly at graffiti, dog muck, potholes(!) is completed and photoshopped in.

But most importantly in those months leading up to the election, campaigning makes it clear to local people why the candidate wants to be a local representative, the reason why they are pounding the streets night after night, sitting in the public pen at mind-numbing planning board meetings in the hope of raising an application issue with the elected members, and spending their time trying to improve matters in the area they love so much.

So it was with last week’s county council elections. Having followed elections over the years in more detail than is possibly rational, I normally have a good idea about how things will pan out. But Thursday night’s elections were the first time I’ve ever been uncertain about the outcome. Completely.

And the reason, now commanding column inches in every major UK newspaper, was Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. 

To be honest, I’m not sure why the rise of UKIP has come as such a surprise. The tremors have been felt for a while. Back in 2011, UKIP started to show up in the ballot boxes during local elections, a little like a pitch invasion after a cup final. Entertaining, but completely inconsequential. But in the parliamentary by-election in February of this year, whole streets in Eastleigh were suddenly going purple. Voters interviewed by the various news channels were saying that UKIP are the only party they can trust, that it’s time for honesty and action. 

Honesty and action. Whether we like it or not, no politician or party is going to be able to give us any good news. It’s tighten-your-belts time and we all know it. But the “we’re all in it together” rhetoric of the months following the historic 2010 general election is taking more and more of a beating (particularly as we’ve found out that maybe the ‘all’ and ‘together’ bits weren’t that straightforward in the first place). So communities of geography, gender, belief, and employment are increasingly pitted one against another.

Rich political soil then for a party like UKIP, whose often puzzling policy is based upon exalting the bygone world of post-war Britain and (somewhat paradoxically), battening down the hatches against any outside influence.

So what does this mean for international development? I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that we have some lessons to learn from Farage and co. 

Firstly, Farage keeps it simple. Policy is delivered genially, as if to friends in a country pub somewhere. No talk of predistribution, bedroom tax or deregulation. Instead, it’s making a change, improving living standards, leaving the EU. UKIP do not alienate through rhetoric. This of course, may well be down to the fact that we are yet to hear the more detailed aspects of UKIP’s headline policies – it will be interesting to see exactly how clearly Farage suggests the UK’s books should be balanced, or how standards should be raised in failing schools.

Understand the society we’ve got. I love that I work in a sector that idealises, working towards a fairer and safer future for the world’s poorest people. That said, we live in a country where a large number of people are (at least on the surface) not happy about the UK reaching its 0.7% aid target, that want to withdraw from the EU due to human rights law and think spending money on climate change adaptation is a waste. Instead of preaching to the converted and worrying about the lack of interest from huge swathes of the population, what would happen if we acknowledged people’s hostility to our cause, tried to understand why and worked to convince them of our position that way? In short, appeal to the society we have, not the one we wish we had.

Focus. We might not know what they think yet about the details of health policy and welfare reform, but everyone in this country knows what UKIP stands for – no more EU membership, getting rid of foreign aid, tooling up UK defence, protecting our ‘green and pleasant lands’ and restricting immigration. Very clear. It’s hard not to toss in the kitchen sink when talking about global poverty, purely because poverty is not simple. But in these straitened times, finding ways to make global poverty relate to the national and local remains one of our biggest challenges.

So back to the count. It’s 3am and the candidates are ready to go home. Normally, an election in such large wards would mean hours and hours of verification and counting. This time round, some candidates found that whole boxes only contained a handful of votes. 33% of the electorate turned out to vote in my home town. I’m not going to analyse why here because it’s a special kind of science, a PhD. But part of the reason so few people came out to vote is that however cliched, they need something they can believe in, messages that makes sense to everyone, whatever their occupation or intellect. And for some people, the voice they’ve always wanted finally has an incarnation in Farage, the self-made scourge of complicated, highly politicised messaging.