Given all the sound, fury and misinformation that is the contest for the EU referendum, people in England could be forgiven for not realising that there are also local elections happening in early May. In a range of district, unitary and metropolitan councils, more than 2,700 seats will be up for grabs.
There will also be 41 police and crime commissioner contests in England and Wales. Plus, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford. With postal voting now widely used, some people have even begun casting their votes for all these elections.
Local elections are often dismissed as being “second order” elections with nothing much at stake. And with at least some justification local elections have previously been deemed the “irrelevant elections”. Turnout can often be low, particularly when council elections are being held on their own instead of alongside European or general elections.
It is not unusual to find around two-thirds of eligible voters staying at home, and only around a third casting a vote for their local council candidates.
This is not helped by the perception that local councils have very little power. Enthusiasm also wanes when it becomes apparent that many councils around the country are effectively dominated by one party, year after year.
Committees in both the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons have considered the reasons for low turnout in local elections in recent years, making some quite technical recommendations, such as considering new voting methods, public information campaigns, and altering the terminology used to describe the voting process.
Why Bother Voting?
Elections provide voters with a choice of competing candidates, platforms, and parties. They provide a mechanism for holding representatives to account for their performance in office and allow citizens a degree of control over their elected representatives.
If you don’t like what they are doing, don’t just stay at home, get out there and vote for a candidate who may do a better job. Political parties care about who controls local councils. This is why they spend time and money standing for election to them. Holding them accountable for their performance is vital.
The heated debate over how government cuts have affected local councils, and campaigns to save local public services such as libraries has demonstrated how people are deeply engaged with what happens in their communities.
Some councils have tried to engage people in decision making through participatory structures. The point is that councils can always do things differently, even if they may have reduced and limited sources of income. But control and leadership of a council can lead to very different public policies being pursued. Past attempts by some Conservative councils to experiment with “easyCouncil” – a no frills approach to service delivery (think easyJet but for councils) is just one example.
Evidence has also shown that councils can be responsive to policy demands expressed during elections. Libraries and other public services that may otherwise have closed have been saved because of public pressure, even if cuts need to be made.
Newcastle Council was heavily criticised over a proposed complete cut to its arts budget in 2012. Now, with the council having maintained some arts funding after a public outcry, culture continues to thrive in the region. With significant powers being devolved to some areas, more powers will likely be available for the local authorities involved in these deals. Public pressure matters, and voting in elections is a key part of that.
Local elections also provide voters with a chance to pursue change. Fed up with how one party runs the council? Then vote for something different. Small parties have often gained greater prominence by being successful in local councils first.
The Greens built their success in Brighton Pavilion on the back of contesting council seats. The Liberal Democrats built their success prior to 2010 by “community politics”. This saw them contesting seats on councils, using that as a springboard to winning parliamentary representation – which has also been done by other small parties, with UKIP recently adopting such a strategy.
In some areas, this has meant that there can often be non-partisan local independents on the council, claiming they put the area’s interests ahead of a party’s. There has been an explosion in the number of small party and independent candidates in recent years as voters experiment with different ways of doing politics.
The people’s politics
In an individualistic age, duty and service are unpopular words. But little in public life would get done without them. People tend to be proud of where they live and take an interest in it.
In many surveys of public opinion, it is typical for local representatives to be more trusted and rated than it is for politics and politicians generally. While people may not know their councillor or local MP personally, they see them in the newspaper and on local TV doing things for residents.
More than one report into local government has referred to elections as “the essence of local democracy”. Getting out to vote shows both an appreciation of what representatives do – which is mostly unpaid and on our behalf.
It confers legitimacy on the local council and shows how much residents care about what goes on in their local area. Voting can be habit forming. It can also make a difference. If you have a local election on May 5, make sure that you get out and vote.