Mark Coles discusses why localism doesn’t enthuse locals
I am sat here authoring this piece on the eve of the UK local elections nowhere near spellbound by the amount of campaigning and interest shown in this annual ritual. As die-hard patriotic Brits and political anoraks head to the voting booths, this seems an opportune time to look at some of the reasons why they fail to spark the public’s imagination.
The idea in theory seems sound. Voting for your local village/town councils has local people running these institutions and arguably knowing what is better than central government. Yet, empirical evidence shows that turnout is akin to that of Barnet vs. Dagenham and Redbridge on a cold, rainy Tuesday night in December, meaning something else is at play here.
The most substantive reason that springs to mind is that many people do not see the point in voting for what they will perceive as a lack of change or lack of any real authority. National elections decide governments, governments decide budgets, and budgets decide projects that go ahead locally.
Local elections on the other hand, merely elect those to handle the budgets. The overriding impression many get is that local councillors are often stuck between a rock and hard place in terms of influence. They are masters of a sandpit, not a beach, managers of off licenses, not supermarkets so they appear and transpire to have little power in the wider scheme of things.
Secondly, it seems people’s apathy is determined by the scope of pledges that can be reasonably offered at local elections. It is open secret manifestos pledges are worth as much if not less, as the single sheet of A4 paper they are written on, so a potential mandate will not only be untrustworthy but also light of untrustworthy substance. We are not a federal system, so the issues people care about (taxes, defence) are controlled by those in Whitehall, and devolution of these powers to individual regions is a political impracticality and economic liability. Therefore, the issues many care about are no goes. Gone are the tax breaks for married couples and increased spending on soldiers, in comes the excitement of local council spending and plans to rejuvenate rundown high streets. Is it any wonder, people do not vote?
Furthermore, the third substantive area to assess is the general perception of local government. It is often deemed to be those who have interests in pet projects, portray general small mindedness or are retired and looking for something to do. Many would struggle to name their MP’s let alone councillors, so lacking the real clout to get anything done is a real common perception. As so few vote, many councils especially rural/semi rural ones enjoy relatively “safe” status, any change in administration is not even noticed by the vast majority, let alone felt in terms of policy change. A recent phenomenon has also been the implication of increased mobility. Before the days of the internet, the “global village” and generally busier lives, many people held lifelong associations with their towns and villages, often venturing not to far ashore over the course of their lives. This has eroded away; villages are now swamped with city dwellers and vice versa. This lack of permanent residence gives many less incentive to vote locally. They have less knowledge of the area, and may not even know if they will be in it in 12 months time. This may seem a small reason, but aggregated across a country with as numerous a numbers of constituencies as ours, it represents a growing trend in British politics.
It seems that all these reasons and others for which I am not as advanced to analyse have contributed to this general disinterest and apathy in local elections. Whatever the result, whoever wins and losses, one can’t help think that democracy and participation are the real electoral losers.