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Friday, 2 May 2008

2 May 2008

So, did you vote yesterday? (You’re forgiven, of course, if you don’t live in England or Wales.) Being the well-informed, involved citizen that I know you to be – what else could you be, as a loyal subscriber to this newsletter? – I strongly suspect that you did. As you know, I’m a great fan of the democratic process, so gold stars all round.

Now, as you picked up that stubby little pencil and marked your X, what was your motivation? Do you always vote for the same party, come what may? Did you decide to send Gordon Brown a message (“Keep up the good work; don’t let the media hyenas get you down” – or alternatively: “Take that, Mr Brown, and the sooner you go, the better.”)?

Or were you one of those rare people who voted on local issues? Your local parties’ policies on public libraries, perhaps, or what they’ve been saying about community policing and vandalism.

The point is, as we discussed on last night’s programme, local councils these days have only limited powers. Most voters have only a sketchy idea what their council can and can’t influence – hospitals, schools, police, all the things that matter most seem to be largely out of their hands.

So should councils have more powers? Should they be able to set their own level of council tax without being subjected to a “cap” from Whitehall? Is it right that local councillors depend on central government for nearly 80 per cent of their cash?

Ah, but suppose you discover that the people living in the next town have much better schools and social services than you do. Is it fair that the quality of what’s on offer depends on where you live? Or is that what happens anyway? No wonder the reform of local government finance always seems to get bogged down in mind-numbing technicalities.

But I do find it rather shameful that only a third of voters tend to turn out at local elections. I bet a lot of the ones who don’t vote complain bitterly when the bins don’t get emptied or the streets don’t get swept.

Mind you, where I live, I think I got just one election-related piece of literature through the door, and that was a letter from my local MP asking me to vote for her party’s local candidate. None of the parties seemed very interested in my vote, or in the votes of my neighbours, so it’s not really surprising that the turn-out tends to be low. (In London, we seem to have been an exception this year, for which you can thank Ken and Boris, the terrible twins, who at least brought a bit of pizzazz to the whole business.)

I’ve never been persuaded that making voting compulsory is a good idea – I like to think that the freedoms that come with democracy include the freedom not to be interested in politics – but I do think that politicians need to do much more to energise and involve voters. If they’re not interested in me as a voter, why should I be interested in them?

By tonight, we Londoners will know who our mayor will be for the next four years – and the rest of the country will perhaps have a slightly better idea about whether David Cameron has begun to turn his party into an election-winning machine again or Gordon Brown is managing to hang on in there.

But you won’t need reminding, will you, that in 2004, Labour did abysmally in the local elections – and then a year later won a third successive victory in the general election.

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