It is popularly assumed that in Britain only about a third of electors bother to vote in local elections. Low turnout is believed to weaken the democratic base of local government—local councillors find it difficult to argue that they have a strong electoral mandate when they have been elected by only a small minority of the adult population. Supporters of the poll tax cited low turnout as a central part of their claim that local government was not properly accountable, and that steps should be taken to strengthen the link between voting rights and the local tax burden. Indeed, compared with other countries within the European Union, Britain does lag some distance behind in a league table of local turnouts. Table 4.1 provides recent illustrative data for sub-national elections in various EU countries and shows a clear gap between this country and our European partners. Although some of these countries have either a legal or quasi-legal regulation to make voting compulsory, this does not wholly explain the disparity. Britain, for example, is the only one of these countries to use ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) in local elections, while all the others use different forms of more proportional systems. Various advocates of proportional representation (PR) have claimed that its introduction would enhance electoral participation (Lakeman 1974), and academic research has shown turnout in PR systems to be on average some 7 per cent higher than for FPTP (Blais and Carty 1990). We assess the impact of the electoral system in detail in Chapter 12 but here our focus will to be to identify and understand some of those factors, which may or may not be directly related to the particular operation of electoral rules, which contribute to low turnout in British local elections.
At this point, however, it is worth sounding a note of caution. Interpreting local turnout figures is not as straightforward as it might seem. First, turnout may have been higher in the 1970s than our figures indicate. Twenty years ago electoral registration officers did not have the access to computers they enjoy today. This meant that updating the register from one year to the next was time consuming and expensive and in many areas the register was only changed infrequently (Todd and Dodd 1982; Todd and Eldridge 1987; Pinto-Duschinsky