Whatever Happened to Your Vote on Thursday?
On Thursday May 2nd yet again local authority elections failed to capture the imagination of the majority of the electorate. Amidst all the analysis of the rise of UKIP and the wider malaise of the three main parties, there has been an absence of analysis of the most troublesome statistic that rears its head at every election again and again; voter turnout. This raises a key question of whatever happened to your vote.
I did vote but many didn't and that troubles me and should trouble all politicians that care about democracy. Like any participative process people who do not vote indicate a wider malaise in society which needs investigation and unpacking. It is all too easy to dismiss as apathy and, in the aftermath of UKIP's considerable gains, I am rather tired of politicians of the three major parties appearing contrite and saying that "they must learn the lessons". This is followed by politicians talking about "wider engagement with the public over the issues that concern them".
This contrite phase is then proceeded, after a month or so, by a return to the business as usual approach as politicians revert to normal behaviour. Over the last few decades this systemic culture of elitism and spin has led to what I see as a complete breakdown of trust with political and financial institutions at every level.
Unfortunately loss of trust is not solved with a quick political fix or PR soundbite. It requires a transformational change in the way politics are negotiated and performed and how that translates itself down to way national government, local authorities and agencies involved in wider governance listen and respond.
From my perspective this requires politicians to work together to resotre trust, moving away from schoolboy scenes and PR tactics that characterise much political debate. Here, all too often, substance of arguments becomes a major casualty of spin and presentation. This is exacerbated by the media's appetite for black and white issues. All parties are to blame here and ironically in this vacuum there is a space created for UKIP and others to seize the initiative.
However, I am more interested in those who did not vote. Why not and what would get them to vote? It is salient to reflect that those who did not vote as a collective group in each council area would have the power to have won just about every council in England. But where do we hear of any systematic analysis or concerted action to address this?
I am a planning academic and this question of participation intrigues me as there is a major issue with the planning process particularly with local plans that are produced with respect to the low level of public participation involved. This leads to key groups or individuals shaping planning agendas simply because it is their voices that are being heard. But are such views representative of all those who live in these areas?
So how might we improve these turnout figures?
First, there are always some calls for making voting compulsory. This is wrong but, in my view, there should be a range of mechanisms available to maximise participation of those who are willing to vote. In an internet age where I can submit my tax return and manage my bank details and respond to planning applications, it seems patently absurd that I can't vote using a secure internet connection.
Second, there is the trust issue. This is interesting as it suggests that the people standing for election do not adequately represent the agendas that people have and can't be trusted to deliver. So this raises the question of who they might trust and how that person might be enabled to stand themselves. Whilst progress has been made in diversifying the make-up of councils there remains a marked bias in the socio-economic profile of councillors. This reflects the huge demands made on time for what are voluntary positions and the clashes with work that preclude many people standing. Evening meetings for all councils in my view may help this.
Third and finally there is a significant difference between the national party and local party councillors. However, for the majority of the electorate this is muddied by the media which focuses on national politics. There is an information deficit on what councillors actually do for us and the difficult work they do which is unpaid. MPs are paid and paid very well. I do not think many people appreciate that fundamental difference.
So, my hat goes off to everyone who has been elected and who are currently serving an electorate by putting in the hours of voluntary work that being an effective councillor demands. For some they too may get to grapple with the planning policy and decisions that certainly will put you in the firing line!