OPINION: Forget about Brexit, our local elections are far more important

Bedford Borough Mayoral Hustings 2019 candidates on stage
Bedford Borough Mayoral Hustings 2019 candidates on stage in the Bedford Blues marquee.

Bedfordians will be heading to the polls on Thursday (2 May) to decide who will represent them at a local level.

Or will they?

Concerns that many will simply use the polls to punish parties over their handling of Brexit could mean we see a record-low turnout.

The last few weeks on the Bedford Independent’s own social pages have seen people confessing their anger at our politicians.

They openly admit they have never trusted those who represent us so little. They almost seem to shout their reasons for not voting with a sense of relief, as if the burden of decision no longer weighs them down.

Many seem to just shrug their shoulders. They can’t be bothered to vote. “What’s the point?” they say. “Look at Brexit, they won’t listen to us anyway.”

Some, however, say they will be heading to the polls with a different agenda. They want to stand up and be counted by spoiling their ballot paper.

Their vote won’t be counted but their anger will be.

To be fair, who can blame them? The anger toward our national representatives from Remainers and Brexiteers is totally justified, Brexit has become a shambles.

Read: Brexit in Bedford – Woodfines Solicitors and Bedford Independent poll results revealed

But we must not soil our own doorstep by using it as an excuse to give up on local politics. To do so will effectively cut our nose off to spite our face.

In Bedford Borough, we will decide upon who will be our ward or parish councillors and also who will be Elected Mayor of Bedford Borough.

As much as I hate political slogans, I must agree with the one being used in local campaigns up and down the country: “this is about bins not Brexit”.

This sentiment, and the concern over increased voter apathy, has even forced Bedford Borough MPs to speak up.

They’ve both issued statements to remind voters that taking part in these elections are of vital importance if we want to make sure our voices heard in local matters.

Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire, Alistair Burt said: “The reality of directly elected mayors, such as Bedford’s mayor, is that they exercise significant personal influence on local affairs, from budgets to planning.

“In a number of ways, a mayor has more influence on your daily life than an MP, so I do urge people to take the local elections very seriously, and vote both for your councillors and mayors.

“No vote means you have no say, and it’s no use complaining afterwards!”

Labour’s Mohammad Yasin, MP for Bedford and Kempston agrees: “I served as a Borough Councillor for 14 years. I know the positive difference that Local Government can make.

“Make sure you use all of your votes on Thursday.”

A recent article in The New Statesman highlighted cross-party concern for how feelings about national politics may affect the hard work of local campaigners.

Speaking to their writer, Conservative group leader Cllr Stephen Moon said: “A general impression of incompetence is turning a lot of people off all parties, but us in particular as we’re in government.”

Cllr Moon even commented in the article that he’d much rather not have to represent the Tories at all, which he later told the Bedford Independent highlights, “a case for the undesirability of national party politics dominating local elections.”

So does Cllr Moon believe that the current distaste for national politics means the Conservatives, who are effectively leading on Brexit, are fighting a losing battle? “No…” he says in defiance.

“We have a much better and more dynamic candidate for Mayor and a fully costed and imaginative manifesto that responds to the needs of Bedford Borough, both town and country.”

Read: Conservatives launch their Bedford Borough Mayoral manifesto

So, what are the mayoral candidates building their campaigns on?

Policing and crime have become hot topics this year, joining the usual suspects of planning, education, and the survival of our town centre.

Read: FSB tells Bedford’s mayoral candidates they must protect our high street

Of course, all candidates believe their own manifesto provides the best solutions to all these problems, but the only one with any evidence of how they’ll perform as mayor is the current one, Dave Hodgson.

This may or may not work in his favour, depending on your own point of view, but ‘Mayor Dave’ has been Bedford’s elected mayor for the past nine years, a fact he has been making the most of in his campaign.

Dave says he can continue to deliver what’s right for Bedford. Speaking at their manifesto launch last month, he said: “We’ve saved services and facilities that have been lost elsewhere, protecting our communities from the government cuts which have caused such misery elsewhere.”

“Local residents know that Liberal Democrats work hard for them all year round,” he says.

Read: Bedford Mayor launches manifesto for re-election

But he’s not without his critics. While all other candidates say they’re ready to do better, Gianni Carofano, the Conservative mayoral candidate has been particularly vocal against our current mayor saying he “has failed Bedford Borough.”

But as has been suggested, Gianni’s struggle may well be more about distancing himself from the Conservative Government than proving what he can achieve locally.

Labour’s Jenni Jackson insists that “by putting people first, a Labour Council will ensure that Bedford Borough is a place that people want to work, live and visit.”

Read: Labour launch their manifesto for Bedford Borough Mayoral elections

But at the hustings hosted by the Bedford Independent and Three Counties Radio, she appeared to be a little out of touch.

When asked if the levels of crime in this town worried her, she replied: “Personally I don’t see any of it, I am very lucky, I live in a very quiet dormitory village that doesn’t actually see a lot of crime. And I come into Bedford and actually I feel safe.”

An honest response, perhaps, but one that was met with surprise from the gathered audience. Especially when you consider the heightened concern over knife crime.

But of course, being mayor isn’t just about crime.

Adrian Spurrell for the Greens has built a campaign, as you’d expect, on the changes that Bedford can make to benefit the environment.

Read: Green Party reveal their mayoral manifesto for Bedford Borough

With recent activity locally and nationally by organisations like Extinction Rebellion, more people appear to be listening to Bedford’s Green Party with interest.

Where the Green Party were once seen as the outsiders, they’re definitely gaining traction and they’re certainly being taken more seriously.

In fact, some comments on social media suggest that along some roads in Bedford, the only colour you’ll see in people’s windows is green.

UKIP’s representative, Adrian Haynes, doesn’t sway far from the standard UKIP rhetoric and their manifesto is attached heavily to national UKIP policies.

Again, he may well be fighting his own party and their national policies than the other mayoral candidates.

Read: UKIP announce their plans for Bedford Borough in mayoral election race

So, what will you do on 2 May? In fact, what will I do?

On Thursday I will be walking to my local polling station with my dog, as I do for every election, and I’ll take pride in the fact I am able to do so.

Who will I vote for? Well if I knew, of course I wouldn’t say, but what bothers me most is that at present I don’t know.

In previous years I’d have been discussing the candidates and their policies in the pub with friends, who all have different political loyalties, for many nights before.

We’d all be putting our opinions across and arguing passionately about who the right person for the job is, and joking with each other about who in the group was wrong the most.

Sadly, we’ve not been doing that this year. Instead we’ve just kind of grumbled our support or disdain for the candidates.

Even my passionate group of friends and I are tired of the effect national politics has had on our local elections.

But let’s wake up. Let’s not let Westminster get the better of us. Let’s put Brexit aside for 24 hours and really look at what we’re voting for on Thursday.

It’s about how much tax we pay on our homes, it’s about where our children go to school, it’s about how we drive to work and it’s about how good our public transport is.

It’s about how the field that we used to play on may or may not be suddenly filled with houses and it’s about how our town centre evolves so that we remain proud of telling people about where we live.

These elections aren’t about our relationship with the rest of the world, they’re about our own day-to-day world. Make sure you have your say in how it is run.

The candidates:

There are five mayoral candidates in this year’s elections:

  • Gianni Carofano, Conservative
  • Adrian Haynes, UKIP
  • Dave Hodgson, Liberal Democrats
  • Jenni Jackson, Labour
  • Adrian Spurrell, The Green Party

All candidates recently attending a hustings hosted by the Bedford Independent and BBC Three Counties Radio at the Bedford Blues ground.

You can hear what they had to say at our Bedford Borough Live page.