Watching the media flurry following the British local elections, the main focus has been on the collapse of the Conservative vote, the continued poor performance of the Liberal Democrats and the recovery of Labour. However, for me the much more important story was the extremely low turnout.
Yes, there was some comment about low turnout, but mostly in the context of Conservative and LibDem voters “staying at home” – comments that clearly considered the current state of affairs to be a dip in what should be expected, rather than the scandal that it is that more than two thirds of the electorate did not vote at all.
At 32% turnout is abysmal. And when you consider that only three quarters of the UK population are registered to vote, that means that less than a quarter of people in this country actually attended a ballot box or sent in a postal vote. Absolutely amazing.
Of course, the lack of comment means that no one is surprised at this at all. I can certainly understand politicians being a little reticent, after their previous attempts to increase voter turnout have failed to arrest the decline in voter numbers, nor to arrest (excuse the pun) the increase in voter fraud from their doomed to failure experiment of postal voting without adequate control.
I am a little more surprised at the very few comments on this in the press, although again I suppose poor turnout is not “news” if it is a normal state of affairs.
So, what is to be done? My personal view is that elections, especially local ones, have become increasingly irrelevant to most of the population, because of three main developments.
Firstly, the increasing centralization of power in England means that most local politics is focused on minor issues, with local councils mostly now delivery vehicles for central government objectives.
Secondly, the lack of real political campaigning in local elections – anyone who has been to most other countries will have seen the high level of activity surrounding elections, with banners on every lamppost and the sheer enthusiasm of the political process, as compared with our tired campaigns comprising mostly leaflets being pushed through front doors, where they mostly go straight into the recycling.
But thirdly, and most importantly, councils have merged and merged beyond what could be reasonably be defined as local. We have lots of district and regional government in the UK, but not local. Yes, there are parish councils in many parts of the country, but they have very limited powers and almost no influence on people’s daily lives.
So, politicians: if you want to re-engage with the populace of this country it is time you actually did something to revive local politics. Here’s a few ideas for a start:
- create neighbourhood mayors at the local level (two to three wards in size), who have real powers over local services for their neighbourhood, accompanied by five person councils to oversee them – small enough that everyone in a community can know their local government team
- move mandatory services and central government funding from councils to regional delivery organizations – with local government representation and oversight, yes, but leaving district and county councils with a free hand to spend locally raised taxation on locally based subjects rather than delivering central government objectives
- although it may seem slightly counterintuitive as I am recommending more localism, but the creation of neighbourhood mayors means that we can merge district councils to form larger districts and merge county councils to form a proper regional tier of government in England, giving a much more logical governmental structure and reducing the number of district and county councillors to offset the cost of neighbourhood mayors
- allow a four week period before elections when banners can be placed on any lamppost, bus stop or other public surface to advertise political activity, something to get some real enthusiasm back into elections!
These are just some suggestions and you may or may not agree with them. But what I do believe is that re-engaging the British population with the political process is going to take something a lot more radical than the previous lightweight attempts of our political parties to revive interest in politics.