Monday, November 15, 2010

Why People Don't Vote in Council Elections

This is my last blast on the recent local by-election. I wrote the other day about the stupidity of all of the parties fighting for second place and, in doing so, letting the Tory in with 28% of the vote. But the real scandal was how few people got this gentleman elected. Turnout was down to Burmese levels - about 8% of eligible voters chose this guy to be their Councillor.

This is perhaps the real talking point. Why is the figure so low? I venture three reasons. One is that the political parties are a closed-shop. They keep local politics mostly to themselves, ensuring normal folk don't get a look in. Come along as an Independent and they will shut you out, however good you are.

Secondly, people know in their hearts that local government in the UK has been secondary to what goes on in London. Thirdly, local government is just, well, dead boring really. We don't reach out or connect. We never do referenda. The public can come in and ask questions but have to endure long, read-out answers. Meetings occasionally rise to the challenge of an issue but often become like a amateur dramatics version of Westminster with mock braying and cheering, regardless of the complexity of the issues at hand.

Thirdly The Council is also stultifyingly homogenious. The elderly are seriously over-represented. Only a handful have proper jobs. There is not ONE black Councillor. Hardly anyone is under 40. There are quite a few women, granted, but hardly young ones. This has got worse, I am told, in recent elections.

The lesson of failing places is that challenge, diversity and plurality are the hallmarks of better society. You get better politics and better outcomes. While I love Suffolk, there is much to be concerned about. Our school attainment is mediocre, our economy not as strong as it could be, our future direction in the knowledge-based economy, I feel, unclear. Our Council, at senior and officer level isn't making a bad fist of addressing some of this - but it needs stronger institutions and better, more pluralistic representation, debate and challenge to make this place the best it can be.

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