Local elections: the turnout trauma

4 May 12
John Tizard

The low turnout in yesterday’s local elections has to be a wake-up call to politicians. We have to understand why people chose not to vote and ask some serious questions about the future shape of local democracy

Congratulations to the cohort of newly elected councillors. They have an opportunity through their actions to demonstrate the value of local government and show that it can and does make a difference.

It’s democracy in action. However, it is extremely disappointing that so few people decided it worth their while to cast a vote. The turnout is estimated to be 32%, the lowest level since 2000.

Local government is very important. It is a critical element of our wider democratic constitution. Those of us steeped in and committed to local government find it incredible that many of our neighbours chose not to vote.

This has to be a wakeup call to politicians in all the major parties across the UK.  Turnout is lower than ever, so does this mean that the political and institutional systems are broken? While voting in elections should be regarded as a duty by every citizen, it clearly is not.  We have to ask why this is the case.

It would be foolish, rash and counterproductive to rush to immediate explanations. It would also be wrong to assume that the problem – whatever it is – can be solved by policy makers and politicians in London or Edinburgh.

We have to understand why people chose not to vote. We have to understand what their perceptions are of local government and local democracy.  This will require careful and considered listening and analysis.

When it comes to looking for solutions we will have to be ready to challenge our own prejudices and traditional orthodoxies. Some serious and very challenging questions will need to be asked about the future shape and form of local democracy.

These will include the relationship between local government and community governance; what might a new facilitative leadership role for local government look like; are the current central government driven cuts programmes making people feel that local government is somehow impotent; do we need new forms of local participatory and representative democracy; and would a new form of politics help.

In my view it would be wrong to attempt to take politics out of local government and local governance. Indeed, I would expect that if there were more local political choice and more local autonomy there could be enhanced popular engagement, but how can this be achieved?  The political parties must take their share of the responsibility for the current turnouts and must be ready to change their approaches but how?

These are just a few of the kind of questions that may need to be addressed. They are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive.

I and many others would have suggested that directly elected mayors could be part of the answer, but unfortunately that has not been the view of many people who voted in the city referenda. Again we need to understand why these ballots delivered so many ‘no’ results.

Local government and its supporters must take a collective deep breath and recognise that some change is going to be necessary. Surely we do not want a more centralised state but one with genuinely accountable and popular local governance at its heart.

None of this should take anything away from those elected yesterday and all serving councillors, leaders and mayors. They have a clear mandate to make a difference; to challenge central government; to lead local partners; and above all to champion what is right for each location, its communities and citizens.


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