Richard North, 09/05/2021  

There came a time in this long-drawn-out results process when I just ceased to care. At best, local government is a mess, the councils acting largely as agents for central government, with an antiquated finance system that puts people in prison if they do not pay.

There is little point, therefore, of thinking locally or even taking much of an interest in local politics – which, as far as I am concerned, are not local anyway. As I have remarked many times, my local council – with a population of well over half a million, is bigger than many countries.

Since that applies to many local authority areas – which are getting even bigger with forced or voluntary amalgamations, none of which have been put to their populations by way of referendums – local authorities are effectively democratic in name only, i.e., not at all.

Thus, typical turnouts for local council elections hover in the region of the thirty precent or lower, as people quite rightly make their own decisions about the utility of voting. Elections, therefore, tend to be treated as an extended opinion poll and, occasionally, as a means of sending a message to an unpopular central government (or opposition).

The mayoral elections are just as bad, if not worse. Picking one contest, more-or-less at random, the mayor of Doncaster, turnout is registered at 28.05 percent, with only 63,862 electors bothering to vote, out of an electorate of 227,679.

First preference votes cast for the winner, Labour's Ros Jones, were 27,669, with 3,563 second choice votes. The total, amounting to 31,232, delivers a shade under 14 percent of those eligible to vote. On the basis of first choice alone, the percentage only just tops 12.

By any measure, this does not and cannot amount to a democratic mandate. In any honest system, the poll would be abandoned for lack of interest. This is simply not political post which has the wholehearted support of the population.

Even in the high-profile and hotly contested London mayoralty, the turnout was a mere 42 percent, with the main page of the "London Elects" official website being remarkably coy about offering any statistical detail beyond naming the winner.

Wikipedia is actually more helpful, in terms of format, although it hasn't been updated yet (at the time of writing). Therefore, we end up with the Telegraph which tells us that winner, Sadiq Khan, secured 40 percent of the first preference votes and 55 percent in the run-off.

That gives Khan, respectively, the approval of 16 and 23 percent of the electorate – again hardly a ringing endorsement. It is one which scarcely provides democratic legitimacy for decisions which have considerable impact on Londoners' daily lives.

When it comes to Police and Crime Commissioners, the results are even more tenous. Picking another result more or less at random, we have the PCC contest for Bedfordshire delivering a turnout of 24.9 percent, with 123,777 votes cast. The winner, Festus Akinbusoye, for the Conservative Party, secured 51,700 votes in the first round, thus carrying with him 10.4 percent of the electorate.

Purists will say that only those who vote can be taken onto account and, generally speaking, where there is a high turnout, that argument has merit. But, where turnouts are so dismally low, there is quite obviously a crisis of legitimacy.

Needless to say, the focus in these elections has been on the poor showing of Labour, and the attendant traumas, complete with the firing of Angela Rayner's chair. But rarely do the legacy media mention the wafer-thin turnouts on which the winners and losers rely.

Thus, while one can rightly say that the Labour Party has a serious problem, the democratic process has an even bigger problem. Politics – and especially at local level – has become largely a spectator sport.

In the past, it has been suggested that making postal votes more accessible might improve turnout, but since they have been available on demand, we have not seen a noticeable improvement.

And then, the very idea of introducing new elections, for posts such as the PCCs and mayors for an increasing number of cities and districts, was thought to be a valid way of improving the democracy of the system. But with the contests degenerating into the usual party political scraps, with the two main parties dominating the field, the posts become just another gravy-train for second tier (and very often second-rate) politicians.

Clearly, with PCC post-holders entitled to an annual salary of £70,000 or thereabout, this is a profitable gravy-train for incumbents who might otherwise struggle to earn the national average (or even minimum) wage. But the very number of people who turn out to vote tells its own story.

I think we need to recognise that increasing the number of elected posts does not, in itself, increase the "democracy" of a fundamentally undemocratic system. Similarly, a majority vote does not necessarily confer democratic legitimacy on those who acquire their posts by this means.

But, until there is some serious thinking and discussion about how to inject even a basic level of democracy into local administration, then the elections will be of little interest or relevance to ordinary people, remaining largely a spectator sport, trawled over by the media and political classes, leaving almost everybody else cold.

To the question, therefore, "who cares wins?", the answer is "perilously few". This is not a healthy situation and nor, in the longer-term, is it sustainable – more so when our ruling elites do not seem to understand that there is a problem.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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The Many, Not the Few