Stalwart Peterborough councillor Swift rolls back the electoral years

Peterborough City Councillor Charles Swift with a portrait of himself when he was mayor. Photo: David Lowndes/Peterborough ET
Peterborough City Councillor Charles Swift with a portrait of himself when he was mayor. Photo: David Lowndes/Peterborough ET
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8th May 2012 will mark 60 continuous years of the Swift family having a presence in Peterborough City Council. And councillor Swift Swift is desperate for people to get out and reverse the trend of dropping voting figures – as he told John Baker.

But the election process, canvassing and procedure has changed forever since the 1950s and Cllr Swift is desperate for people to get out and reverse the trend of dropping voting figures – as he told John Baker.

Charles Swift as as a young councillor. Photo: Peterborough Telegraph Archives

Charles Swift as as a young councillor. Photo: Peterborough Telegraph Archives

Already a staunch unionist, Charles followed his mother Maud into town hall in 1954, two years after she achieved office for the south ward.

THE local election turnout figures in 1954 were about 70 per cent. In 2011, turnout in some wards was as low as 29 per cent.

Cllr Swift showed the Evening Telegraph the electoral roll. Those who previously voted from the list of 4,200 people have a line struck through their names. We do not know how they voted, just that they did.

But there are almost whole pages, and whole streets, where no one voted – huge swathes of families who did not bother to walk the few yards to their polling station.

On one street, two households out of 45 voted. In another, fewer than 40 from 216 put a cross in the box.

Cllr Swift revealed that, using these figures as a yardstick, a candidate only needs secure a minimal number of votes for success.

About 600 people are ineligible to vote, mainly Eastern Europeans. Of the 3,600 left, there was a turnout of fewer than 50 per cent, with about 1,500 voting.

There are generally two or three candidates, so 700 votes will almost certainly guarantee success.

And Cllr Swift knows that in his ward there are sheltered housing and complexes of senior citizens who vote en masse in their hundreds for him, so he is really only going for a few handfuls here and there.

It’s a lifetime away from 1954, when Cllr Swift, then boasting a wave of slicked back black hair, was narrowly beaten in his first run at office at the age of 23 by a slender margin of 12 votes, following a couple of recounts.

It was a short-lived disappointment, as he gained success five weeks later, when two long-standing council members were made aldermen for their long service, and a by-election was called in the north ward.

Since winning office, Cllr Swift has accumulated tens of thousands of pages of literature, Evening Telegraph cuttings, memorabilia and items of a life in Peterborough City Council.

The flyers show candidates from all parties from yesteryear in dated suits, pictured with their families as they lay down their aims and ambitions.

There is a vellum map of the ward, with polling station, community room and unity hall, a graphical itinerary of which roads to target.

This preparation is what led Cllr Swift to become deputy mayor at 28 and mayor at 30, later progressing to council leader, and becoming a permanent fixture in the council for Labour and the Independents for decades.

He even retained his seat in the 1990s in the middle of an investigation into alleged corruption, which was eventually dropped due to insufficient evidence.

Such is his knowledge of the populace in the area, he knows that only 20 people still remain who voted that year in 1954. They would have been at least 21 years old then, meaning that they are now in their 80s.

But the lists from the ‘50s and ‘60s look a lot healthier, scattered as they are with colours indicating the intentions of prospective voters, and symbols showing who had died or moved, or was ineligible.

Each candidate walked to each house, using the list from the vote before to find out who was whom.

Such was the knowledge of voting intentions in 1954 that two recounts were held for the old railway cottages when election administrators realised that there was one more Conservative vote than predicted.

Cllr Swift said: “One of the ladies looked at the figures and saw that there were 12 Conservative votes. She knew that there were only 11 Conservative voters, but it still came to 12, so that was the result.

“The next day, they found an 85-year-old lady who who had got cataracts and had mistaken ‘Swift’ and Stokes’ on the voting form.”

It was a different world, when the local councillor was almost regarded as a celebrity, an era of nostalgia that still sustains the energy of the ‘grey vote’ today.

If only this was universal. A YouGov survey last week showed that 79 per cent of East Midlands residents were unable to name a single council representative

Last year, a brief survey of 100 13 to 19-year-olds taken in the Queensgate shopping centre during Local democracy week found that only 17 per cent knew Peterborough’s MPs, and only five per cent knew any of their local ward councillors.

Perhaps their lack of knowledge was a function of their answer to another question; when asked how much they trusted politicians out of 100 per cent, the average was 35 per cent.

Cllr Swift highlights several other reasons why he believes people don’t vote in the same numbers in Peterborough as yesteryear.

One is that people believe the council’s powers are diminishing, with the majority of council services run externally by private/independent organisations such as SERCO and Vivacity.

Another is that there are no candidates appealing to the high percentage of Eastern Europeans in the city. And yet another perhaps controversial viewpoint is that there are high numbers of disillusioned people who care little about local issues - and are more concerned about central Government and the benefits that it sets.

Cllr Swift’s ward is not due to be contested for another three years, when he fears turnout will have dropped further.

So should people vote?

“Of course I want people to take part,” said Cllr Swift. “I lost my first election by 12 votes by telling people to ‘go out and vote’, But there was a satisfaction that 70 per cent of people had voted.

“People should look at their candidates and vote for the one which will provide the most value for money.

“Ninety per cent of senior citizens will vote, because because they have been brought up to vote.

“I would say to candidates: ‘go and knock on doors’. People responded to me, and they will respond to you.

“But in the end it is up to the political parties to whip up enthusiasm.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of controversy between candidates?”

10 voting changes since the ‘50s

1. The candidates were chosen in a different fashion.

Cllr Swift said: “My mother had to go in front of 50 to 60 people in the ward. I had to put myself forward in front of 85 people.

“Now the candidates are foisted on the electorate of Peterborough. Each party has a certain number of women and ethnic minorities who must be chosen.

“Years ago, people were chosen on ability and men and women competed against each other. In the North ward, I was the only man against five women – but elected on ability.

“There are many candidates in the election who are standing who have never been in the town hall, or not done any public service at all.

“Gone are the days when your local councillor was held in high esteem. People have no idea who their candidates even are – we used to talk in front of public meetings of 500 people in the recreation ground`.

2. Elections were held on the second week in May rather than the first – prior to that they were even held in November.

3. There were no polling cards. each candidate had to go out and personally canvas. Cllr Swift said: “The candidate got their nomination papers, and that was it.”

4. More information, banners and promotion: Cllr Swift still has a giant banner which would once have stretched across roads, promoting the cause of the party. There were also more window bills.

5. Voting itself was seen as an occasion. Cllr Swift said: “There were no TVs then, so the man would come back from work and the couple could go out to the stations before a night out.

“It was a lovely time – pub landlords and fish and chip shops always did 10 times better on polling days.”

6. Some cards had little or no descriptions of candidates. voters researched their candidates before they went to the booths.

7. No telephone canvassing in the 1950s.

8. Far fewer postal votes in the 1950s. This year more than 18,000 have registered for postal votes, in 1954 it was about 500.

9. Voting took place at local schools, administered by staff at the schools acting as polling clerks.

Cllr Swift said; “There were about 90 schools hosting elections then, today there are three or four.

“I would still advocate the counting to take place in the school hall.

You would get 200 to 300 people waiting outside for the result; there was just more enthusiasm, particularly in the marginal wards.

“In those days, the polling station was open from 8am to 9pm and they would do the count at the school so you would have a result by 10.15pm at the very latest.

“Nowadays, it is 7am to 10pm and it takes much longer – some of the previous elections have been the biggest farces on God’s Earth and I couldn’t stick it.”

10. Candidates’ partners also sent out cards to voters, such as this one from Brenda Swift in 1965: “Living in the centre of the North ward, our home is open to anyone at any time. You gave my husband a good majority in his last election. I would ask you to do so again.”