Local elections: The story of a University of Warwick student who ran for his local council
It is often said in politics that young people should get more involved, whether it be through voting in elections or by getting involved in local issues through protests and campaigning. In an age where the internet is so dominant, it is certainly harder to monitor levels of engagement. However, what seems clear is that there remains a voting participation gap between young people and the wider population. This is most visible on the national level with a survey by the British Election Study in 2021 estimating that, for the last three general elections, turnout for 18-24 year-olds has been around 50%, compared to over 70% turnout for age groups over 45.
In light of this, and the recent local elections that took place on 5 May, The Boar News was particularly interested to see what young people were doing to get involved with local politics. As a result, we were intrigued when we heard that a University of Warwick student was running in the local elections. We chose to follow the student’s campaign throughout the election cycle in hopes of getting a better glimpse of the inner workings of local political parties, whilst also gaining a unique perspective as to what it is like to be involved in a roots-based movement as a young person more generally. This is the story of Alex Gallagher’s campaign in the 5 May local elections: a student’s perspective of local politics.
Getting involved with local politics:
Alex is a second year student at Warwick University and describes his first interaction with his local branch of the Liberal Democrats as being largely motivated by the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum. With both his parents being EU nationals, alongside widely held frustrations about the inability to vote due to his age, he decided to join his local branch of the Liberal Democrats. At the time, the Libeal Democrats were campaigning to rejoin the EU, and this, combined with his liking for other policies like drug decriminalisation and electoral reform, led him to get involved with his local party in the Merton Borough Council, London, aged 15. Since, he has become increasingly involved, taking special interest in other local issues such as controversies regarding the expansion of Wimbledon Tennis club, and the closing of a nearby Police station.
Merton is a London Borough Council that can be found in the Wimbledon area of South London, and has long been run by Labour locally, whilst being represented by a Conservative MP nationally. In the local election, some of this area, and others surrounding, were key targets for the Liberal Democrats. Alex’s area, Village Ward, was not as highly targeted however, with the Liberal Democrats hoping to pick some of the area’s Conservative seats.
Whilst Alex initially described his voluntary work as “on and off”, he soon became more involved with local campaigning through door knocking (known as ‘canvassing’) and delivering leaflets, whilst also participating in other local community events such as litter picks, where he had the opportunity to meet many of his local party leaders. He also took part in campaigning in other key boroughs, such as in the North Shropshire by-election that took place at the end of last year. More recently, he was asked to stand for Village Ward (a part of Merton Council) in this year’s local elections, an opportunity that he agreed to take up despite having had no former ambitions to become involved in politics professionally.
When asked whether it was hard to get involved with local politics he said: “It is surprisingly easy”, and went on to highlight that the local party was happy to have him involved. Further, he said that this was helped by the fact that the local party was “well functioning”, had “good campaign literature” as well as being “well funded”.
When asked during an interview organised with Raw 1251am, a student radio station based at Warwick University, he maintained that the local party was happy to see young people get involved.
Local elections campaigning:
Following his nomination to run for the local council under the Liberal Democrats, he was tasked with working alongside the local party in the campaigning process. Much of this involved similar work to what he had done before, primarily being made up of canvassing and giving leaflets to targeted constituents.
When describing his favourite aspects of canvassing, he joked that, perhaps unsurprisingly, his highlights were when “people said they would vote for me, or have already voted for me [the party] in the past.” He also said he really enjoys getting the opportunity to talk to local residents. The only downside he pointed to was that it can be “dreaded a bit if you haven’t done it for a while as you have to relearn how best to do it”.
Changing the topic slightly, we asked what the general reaction was to political campaigners on the doorstep, as well as some of the sorts of issues people tended to bring up most frequently.
On the first point, he said that the response is somewhat mixed, but that “most people are polite, even if they disagree.” Furthermore, “it feels a lot more personal when you are the candidate”, he added.
He also recounted other more light hearted moments, like that he had: “Heard stories of people inviting canvassers in for tea just to waste their time so they can’t knock on other people’s doors.”
Regarding the most raised issues, he highlighted that there seems to be a lot more of a focus on national issues like Partygate because: “A lot of people base what they think off of the national issues”. When asked whether this focus was ever frustrating given a lot of the party’s focus on local issues, he joked: “No not really, nobody likes Boris”.
Interestingly, when asked about why he thought the national topics were focused on, he accepted that part of it may be due to the focus of media attention on the bigger issues. When pressed further, I was surprised to learn that he had not been contacted by any other media organisations, and that we were the first to display any real interest in his campaign.
Whilst on the topic of campaigning, I also took the opportunity to ask who the most famous person’s door he had knocked on was and, much to my disappointment, he answered: “I’ve knocked on some teacher’s doors.”
Being the candidate
Whilst finding out about the physical campaigning process and his involvement with the local party was really interesting given the rarity of seeing an outwards perspective from the inside, I also wanted to find out more about how he balanced campaigning with his university studies, something I assumed would become more problematic if he were to be elected.
On this, he noted that much of the role is “case work” and can be done online, and “councillors only need to go to one meeting a month.”
Further, he pointed out that: “Councillors are elected in threes, and so they can rely on each other a bit for support”. Linking back to students running, he said that: “In a lot of ways, it feels like a lot more responsibility than it is”, suggesting that other young people shouldn’t feel put off by this.
This is not to say that there is little work, however. This was perhaps most visible when Alex pointed out that he was going back to London for the weekend to deliver 3000 targeted leaflets as part of the final run-up to election night.
Post local elections:
The results of the local elections in England saw the Conservatives lose 348 seats, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats making gains of 22 and 192 respectively. Merton council, according to its official website, saw the Liberal Democrats increase their number of councillors to 17, an increase of 11 compared to 2018. Labour, the historic majority party on the local level for Merton, maintained its 31 seats, whilst the Conservatives lost 10 seats compared to 2018.
Whilst Alex was not elected, something which he had somewhat expected given Village Wards’ history, he and his other Liberal Democrat council nominees achieved 11% of the vote each, with the Conservatives, who won the seats, winning with 17% each.
In response to the result on election night, Alex said: “[The Liberal Democrats in his area] Ended up tripling our vote count and coming a lot closer than anyone imagined! Very happy with the result”.
He has since depicted election night as “a real rollercoaster”, adding: “There’s genuinely a lot of drama about trying to figure out who’s winning based on vague rumours and recounts, meaning that there is never a boring moment”.
In further reflection, he has described election night as: “Extremely humbling to see so many people put their trust in you to be their representative.
“It was also lovely to meet my opponents! We had a nice chat about the highs & lows of the campaign and, of course, I wished them all the best in their new role as councillors.”
“Local politics, on the whole, skews very strongly towards the interests of older people, mainly because a lot of young people simply don’t get involved. We could do with more young people from all parties taking a more active part in the process…”
When asked if he would run again in the future, he answered: “Definitely! The whole experience has been great fun and I look forward to doing it again.” He had a final message for other young people:
“Local politics, on the whole, skews very strongly towards the interests of older people, mainly because a lot of young people simply don’t get involved. We could do with more young people from all parties taking a more active part in the process, whether it’s by standing for election, campaigning or even just by voting.”
I would like to thank Alex Gallagher for letting us follow his campaign and for agreeing to numerous interviews with The Boar. Further, I would like to thank both Ben Morley and Jonny Ball for their contributions throughout the process.