By Olver Gibson
Low turnout is a typical feature of local elections in the United Kingdom.
While 67.3% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2019 general election, just 35% voted in the local election of 2018.
In theory, at least, elections generally increase in legitimacy if more voters take part.
So why does the UK, a country that is rated highly on the Democracy Index, have such a low turnout in local elections?
There are a few possible contributing factors:
- Lack of focus on education about local democratic processes in schools
- More focus being assigned to general elections in the press
- Strange local election cycles
- Smaller role of councillors as opposed to MPs
- Lower stakes than in general elections
Does it matter?
Increased oversight of democratic processes increases the effectiveness of governance.
For example, the Government sits in Parliament and is questioned regularly by the Opposition, backbenchers and a variety of Parliamentary committees.
The Government, and all of the MPs in Parliament, are also subject to press scrutiny and questions from constituents.
This scrutiny ensures that MPs are more committed to the wishes of their constituents, which in turn helps them to work more effectively.
While local governments require a lower level of oversight than the UK Government, the fact that so few people vote in local elections is troubling, and it would be beneficial to democracy in this country if efforts were made to increase participation in local elections.
What can be done?
It would, no doubt, help to increase turnout in the future if more was done in schools to educate people about the way local democracy works in the UK.
More could be done in general by schools to educate their pupils about democracy in the UK.
Participation could also be increased by a clearer election schedule for our local councillors.
The current election schedule is quite confusing and could put people off from researching our local democratic processes.
Instead of electing one councillor a year for three years, and then not having an election on the fourth year, as we do in Kirklees, it could prove to be a more accessible process if a certain number of council seats were allocated to a particular geographic area, such as Kirklees, and if councillors were elected all at once and for two-year terms.
Will something be done any time soon?
The political comedy Yes Minister satirically set the position of Whitehall through the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby, who claimed: “If the right people don’t have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it: politicians, councillors, ordinary voters!”
While Yes Minister used hyperbole for comedic effect, it is undoubtedly true that little has been done to empower local councils by successive governments over the years.
In fact, the budgets of councils across the UK were slashed during David Cameron’s time as PM as part of the austerity program.
For the moment, the focus of the Government is obviously on combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, and affairs in relation to local democracy will have to stay as a low priority concern.
Still, after entering Downing Street last year, Boris Johnson announced his Government’s campaign to ‘level-up’ the British economy, and it would no doubt be a boost to areas such as Kirklees to have a more open and effective system of local democracy.