The low turnout on May 3 highlighted the urgent need for democratic renewal, at both local and national level. And that means more than just technical solutions
The day after the local government election I wrote a Public Finance blog drawing attention to the very disappointing, indeed lamentable level of turnout by the electorate. I made the point that there is a declining lack of interest in formal political processes and in the orthodox political parties, especially with regard to local government. However, very sadly, much the same can be said for national government and national politics too.
Some of this is due to the behaviour of a small minority of politicians and issues such as the scandal of the parliamentary expenses. Of course, it goes deeper than this and indeed I have to acknowledge that turnout was falling even before the expenses revelations. It has also been influenced, I fear, by the behaviours of other politicians, including the abandonment of election commitments.
Not that I am not arguing for a dilution of party based politics – this is essentia,l although not the only source of debate, challenge and ideas. Party allegiances should signal clear values and political positions to the electorate.
The UK and English turnout even in general elections does not bear good comparison with many other western democracies, as we have witnessed in the recent two rounds of the French presidential elections (though it may do when the US citizens vote in November).
In some countries, people are actually laying down their lives to secure the vote. Less than a century ago in this country, women were still campaigning for the right to vote on the same terms as men; and not many decades before that, many men had no right to vote. Democracy is precious and worth seeking, defending and practicing
Of course, democracy has to mean more than the occasional election for national or local governments. People have to feel that they have equal power and access – which they clearly, for whatever reason, feel that they do not in the current UK set up. They have to feel that their votes matter and that those whom they elect can make a difference.
The tragedy is that in terms of local government, councillors and elected mayors can definitely make a difference – although more power and authority devolved to town halls would undoubtedly be beneficial. Of course, if this power and authority is then retained within the town hall and not shared or devolved to communities, there is an inevitable risk that the electorate will continue to feel disempowered and disconnected with power.
In my previous blog, I made the point that we should not rush to ‘solutions’ to the democratic turnoff. We need to listen to those who vote and those who do not; to analysis their views; and seek a range of responses. Therefore I worry when I hear politicians and commentators seeking to blame the electorate for not having ‘undertaken their civil duty’ and voted, or saying the answer is more postal or electronic voting or Sunday voting.
Such reforms may make a difference but will they address the fundamental issues? I very much doubt it. I suspect that there has to be a more radical review and set of solutions, especially in respect of local governance. This might include:
- recognising that in a world of social media and instant response, people may value a more participatory democracy to supplement and complement the representative system
- accepting that many people express their commitment to their communities and society through active involvement in a range of community and voluntary organisations; and that these organisations themselves offer voice for communities and individuals
- greater powers and choice for local authorities over a range of services, and economic, environment and social matters
- more devolvement from local authorities and other public bodies to communities and community groups; and wherever possible the transfer of control and choice to services users and residents
- ensuring that local government secures value for money and social value in all that it does – though recognising that its leadership role goes well beyond service commissioning and delivery
- encouraging councillors to work in their wards with community groups and to communicate more effectively with local residents and to be accountable to the local community; and for them to recognise that ward level activity is just as important as the strategic role
- some form of proportional representation for local government elections
- the right of recall of councillors as well as MPs
- open primaries to select candidates
- the promotion of greater diversity amongst candidates; and practical action to make this a reality
- creating firm philosophical and policy ‘contracts’ between the elected and the electorate
This set of ideas, whether one agrees with them or not, and a discussion around them, would at least begin to move us on from the debate about measures such as Sunday voting.
There is a big responsibility on political leaders at a national and local level to take note of the low and declining electoral turnouts, to listen to the reasons why, and to respond. It is far too easy for those of us who have been and remain in politics to take comfort in the traditions that we have defended so proudly. And I, for one, remain proud to have been a councillor and remain a strong supporter of local government.
However, I am now beginning to realise that in order to ensure strong, effective and popular local governance there will have to be change. Some local authorities of all political persuasions are asking ‘how can we demonstrably get closer to the community, demonstrate our relevance and make a positive difference even at this time of awfully deep cuts?’
There needs to be more such debate and experimentation – but it has to involve the communities, the local voluntary sector, local businesses and residents. And that debate should not start from the premise of defending the current arrangements. Rather, it has to start with a totally open mind around how to secure democratic renewal. If the outcome of that debate means a different democratic model, then that it is where we should end up.