Safe seats and social media — a general election car crash waiting to happen

I hate writing about me. Never be part of the story, they taught me once. Your vote is your own private matter, they also told me.

I’m going to break those rules today. For the past six years, I’ve written a blog dealing with issues in and around Greenwich, south east London — the area where I’ve lived all my life.

This is safe Labour territory — a leaky bin bag with a red rosette would easily get elected around here.

The blog, 853, really got going after I attended a council meeting and was struck by the barely-concealed contempt councillors showed for residents.

As a journalist with a bit of time on my hands, I started digging a bit deeper and found all kinds of stupid things emerging from a bullying council leadership that was happy to booze it up while services were being cut.

(I’ll be honest — I’m thinking of giving it up. It’s taking up time I should be spending on other things. But that’s another story.)

My past dabbling in politics

Back then, thought the best way to try to change things was through getting involved in politics myself.

So I joined the Greens, and had a bash at standing for the council in 2010’s election. Of course, I didn’t get in, but I’ll treasure each and every one of the 1,066 votes I got until my dying day.

I also enjoyed shaking up the Greens’ communications, challenging the incumbent councillors — who were good people — and an up-and-coming campaigner named Natalie Bennett bought me a couple of beers while out on canvassing training.

I didn’t stay in the Greens for long after the election — my initial fervour subsided. But the contacts I made back in that election campaign helped me make 853 reasonably successful at getting good stories and starting local debates.

And most of all, it taught me the importance of getting involved in local issues you care about — because if you don’t do it, who will?

A floating voter in 2015

Scroll forward to 2015. Five years on, I’m a bit older and I’m more of a floating voter.

Agonising over a vote here in Greenwich & Woolwich, a super-safe Labour seat, feels slightly indulgent. But I’ve always felt it’s my responsibility to attend the polling station and make a choice for someone or something.

Why am I agonising? I’ve been deeply disappointed by the Green candidate. If you’re pretending you’ll fight with the big boys, you should at least turn up to the ring. But Abbey Akinoshun missed a string of hustings, and performed poorly at the one I saw him appear at.

A clumsy tweet endorsing the Nepal earthquake appeal fund — since deleted — saw him pose with a “Vote Green” placard. If you want to be taken seriously, don’t do things like that. Pointing it out didn’t seem to win me friends in the local party.

It’s a shame, because there are really good people in the local Greens who have done really good things. I really wish one of them had stood instead.

Impressed by Labour’s candidate

And something strange was happening. I found myself enormously impressed by the Labour candidate, Matt Pennycook. When the former councillor first ran to be the candidate, I thought he’d be too slick to be true.

But he’s run by far the best campaign of the lot. He’s personable, and has taken time to differentiate himself both from his predecessor — who appeared uncomfortably close to the developers running rampant around here — and from the council.

Instead of arriving with preconceived notions, he’s taken care to get under the skin of local issues, and even helped stop the council dumping bags of rubbish in my road. He personally deserves the thumping majority he’ll no doubt get.

Tempted back to Labour

I swore off voting Labour after it introduced tuition fees in 1998. Iraq and ID cards cemented that opposition. Later, the local council’s bullying antics reaffirmed it.

But with a change of leadership at the council, and new blood coming through, things have been changing — albeit very slowly.

There are superb Labour MPs in neighbouring constituencies, such as Heidi Alexander and Teresa Pearce. I’ve also been really taken by Christian Wolmar’s party machine-defying run to be London’s mayoral candidate, while in general I’ve been impressed with Ed Miliband’s steeliness during a tough election. Could I endorse all that with a vote?

So, a bit like an old-fashioned game of Pong, I’ve actually been moving between Green and Labour for the past couple of weeks. It’s usually been gaffes that have sent me flying back to the other side.

Labour councillor sending a rude tweet to an opponent? That seals it for the Greens. The Green guy’s not shown for another hustings? Maybe Labour, then.

One stupid tweet stopped all that

Then there was today. Wandering down to the shops earlier, I found the streets were in a mess after bin day — a common occurrence. It looked like the refuse crews had done one end of my road, then gone home.

Strong winds hadn’t helped matters, but as mums helped their kids step over abandoned bin bags on their way home from school, I thought I should say something. A tweet can sometimes nudge things along.

When I got home, the bins were being belatedly collected. Heaven knows what had happened, the council didn’t respond.

But then this reply from Greenwich councillor Stephen Brain popped up.

Cllr Brain is the chief whip in Greenwich Council’s Labour group, and represents the adjacent ward to mine. I’ve spoken to him in the past, and he came across as a nice guy. Part of the change, I hoped.

But put him behind a keyboard, and he’s got form for odd outbursts. His blog for constituents in the Peninsula ward — which faces huge redevelopment schemes in future years — is a less-than intoxicating mix of pro-Labour messages and “vote Labour” campaigning.

And true to form, Cllr Brain had turned my minor grumble about bins into a party issue. Why include the local party in his mocking?

I realised then I just couldn’t do it. I told Cllr Brain he’d lost Matt a vote.

Matt Pennycook is a great candidate and a real credit to his party. I really think he’ll be a good MP, and hope he’ll be an excellent one. He’s won plenty of wavering voters over.

But if Labour in Greenwich is having a legitimate grumble about a non-existent bin collection mocked by a local councillor, then why on earth does its candidate deserve my vote?

Anyway, it’s alright for Cllr Brain — his bins get collected perfectly.

Drawing the poison out of local politics

There’s a very specific local issue in Greenwich — challenge the council once, you become an enemy for life. Even writing this will no doubt be interpreted as a hostile act rather than the wail of frustration that it actually is. This has been a problem in the local Labour party for years. It’s a poison that needs to be drawn out of this ruling party if the area is to thrive.

But parties in general really need to watch what their representatives do behind a keyboard.

Some may call this a social media election, but all it seems to be doing is providing opportunities for quick-tempered party representatives to dig themselves into deep holes. How many other votes are being lost by entitled councillors shooting down their candidates’ campaigns? Or is this just a Greenwich issue?

Of course, Cllr Brain’s outburst is nothing compared with some of the rubbish Ukip’s candidates have spewed on social media in recent months. And it’s certainly true that local councillors could do with some training to remind them their supposedly witty putdowns are actually deeply damaging, not just to their parties, but to the authorities they are members of.

We need reform to stop this complacency

But it’s indicative of the complacency across our political system, where parliamentary seats and councils haven’t changed hands in generations. Whatever result finally emerges from this Thursday’s poll, electoral reform has to take place in the next parliament.

Our votes should be valued and fought for — both on the doorstep and in the digital space — and not written off by local party hacks who give every impression of having stopped listening and stopped learning.

In the meantime, it’d be lovely if someone, somewhere, actually acted as if they wanted my vote on Thursday. Anyone?