• Voting in Local Elections

    Local government elections are upon us again. It is a fair bet that, when they are over, we will have all the usual complaints that, despite their undoubted importance, the turnout was depressingly low. So, why do local elections attract so little attention and involvement from the general public? I have a possible answer to that perennial question.

    It is generally thought, though on what basis I am not sure, that local government is not an appropriate arena for party politics. It is presumably felt that political parties are legitimately concerned with – and are the expected participants in – the contest to produce the government of the country, but have a less obvious role in local elections.

    Whatever the merits of this view, we pay a heavy price, I contend, for the absence of political parties from the local election contest. That absence means, first, that the resources commanded by the political parties, and which are available to raise the level of attention and the volume of information available to the voters in national elections, are missing from the local scene.

    Voters are therefore less likely to be aware that local elections are taking place, let alone cognisant of their significance or of the issues involved. But there is also a further factor.

    My wife and I are keen to do our democratic duty, and we well understand the importance of the functions undertaken by local government. Where we live, there is no shortage of information arriving through the letter box and telling us why we should vote for particular candidates. So, why do we struggle to persuade ourselves to cast our votes?

    The problem is that one of the potentially most important pieces of information is usually not available. Although there are often a number of candidates put forward by the local branches of the political parties, they do not identify themselves as having a party allegiance – presumably for fear that they would thereby alienate those who are hostile to the party to which they belong.

    But the result is that the voters are left without an important shorthand indicator of a candidate’s views on signifiant issues. What, for instance, is their view of public expenditure? Would they think it worthwhile to raise rates a little in order to afford a valuable local facility? How far would they take into account the wider public interest on issues like climate change?

    A party label will often provide a useful clue as to where a candidate might stand on such broader issues. Without that information, we are left to assess the candidates on their own account of their achievements and attitudes, and that often means that the candidates who stand out (if we are prepared to wade through the often quite lengthy and detailed cvs) are those who seem to have some experience of “running things”.

    A party label can, in other words, save the voter a great deal of trouble in assessing who to vote for, and could lead to the election of candidates who are more widely qualified than merely on the basis of their individual “business” experience or lack of it.

    So, my conclusion is that local elections would produce better outcomes and attract wider participation from both voters and candidates if the political parties made their involvement more obvious and provided essential information to voters about the party allegiances of the candidates they are prepared to endorse.

    The candidates themselves should also come clean. Many budding politicians see local elections as the first step on the ladder to a political career. They should learn the lesson early that it is never a good idea to keep secrets from the public.

    But the real lesson is that local government is an important element in the government of the country – and, like every part of government, it raises real questions of political belief and principle. It is not merely the domain of the well-intentioned. The voters need to know where their potential councillors are coming from, in terms of their fundamental beliefs about how society should function. Their party political allegiances do not by themselves provide a full and accurate picture of that issue, but – where they exist – they are an important element of that picture nevertheless.

    Bryan Gould
    1 October 2019