Magazine article Public Finance

Hello and Goodbye

Magazine article Public Finance

Hello and Goodbye

Article excerpt

Local elections are not really local any more, if they ever were. This year's round of contests in England and Wales seemed, more than in most years, to be dominated by national issues. Certainly, the interpretation of their outcome had far more to do with their impact on Westminster politics than on municipal achievement. The fact that Labour lost control of Reading had nothing, apparently, to do with how well or badly the council was run, but was intended to teach Gordon Brown a lesson.

It might well be that many people voted in order to send a signal to the politicians in London, but is it true of most? We know that low taxes pay electoral dividends for Conservative councils such as Wandsworth and Westminster, even when the Tories are doing badly nationally, so it is possible to buck what looks like a political trend.

But it seems pretty clear from the scale of the May Day rout for Labour that this was more than a normal run-of-the-mill local election setback not least because the party lost so heavily in its heartlands. After all, this was the four-yearly cycle of elections that should have been good for Labour, since they take place largely in the big cities, the metropolitan boroughs and Wales, all Labour heartlands. If the contests had been in the shire counties or districts, you could imagine the Labour vote disappearing altogether.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this year's contests? First, the turnout. Many councils worked hard to increase voter participation yet the final figures showed that at about 35% it was not greater than in any other year. In some parts of Liverpool the turnout was below 10%. In the years between 1979 and 1996, average turnout in local elections in England and Wales topped 40%, and in the postwar years it was 50%. The low point was in 1998, when it dropped to 28%.

It is noticeable, however, that turnout in local elections is gradually rising again. Participation is also higher when local contests are held on the same day as the general election, although turnout in the latter is also at an all-time low. This lack of engagement seems to suggest a general apathy with the formal political process; but it might be ameliorated by more innovative methods of voting.

Of course, the one place where turnout was highest, averaging 45% and rising to 70% in some areas, was London. The mayoral election in the capital demonstrated the galvanising power of personality politics. True, it got more than a modicum of publicity, which was due more to the size of the job and the fame of the personalities seeking to fill it. There was also a huge amount at stake for the parties supporting the winner and loser. But perhaps there is a message here. If we want to make local politics interesting again and, in the modern jargon, to engage people more, a bit of oldfashioned personality-based stump electioneering clearly works wonders.

Writing in this month's Prospect magazine, Michael Kenny, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, and Guy Lodge, head of the democracy team at the Institute for Public Policy Research, make a plea for more mayoral contests of the sort that Tony Blair once promised but that have materialised only sporadically.

'The London mayoral election has got a lot of people in the capital talking about politics again,' they say. 'There is more at stake here than political drama... Beyond London, it is clear that there is something about elected mayors which generates political energy and a sense of connection. As a result of their direct election, mayors are much better known than council leaders, and are in a position to promote greater political accountability!

It seems odd that at a time when there appears to be greater interest in local politics, fewer people take part in elections. When asked, voters say they do not believe elections make much difference. The feeling that councils are really not in control of their own destinies might explain why voters consider local elections an opportunity to punch the government on the nose. …

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