Back in 2012, my wife and I were walking down Hills Road, returning from having voted in a local election, when we ran into some neighbours, walking towards the Polling Station. “Off to vote then?”, I asked. They shook their heads: “No, don’t think we will”. Now, we’re talking here about an intelligent, middle-aged professional couple, who were not in a hurry, and who had been interested enough in local affairs to join in a planning objection a few months before. I’m certain they voted in the General Election, so they knew how easy and quick it is to cast your vote. And on local election day, they were about to walk past a Polling Station without bothering to go in. Why would this be the case?
When you think about it, the answer is obvious: they were probably uncertain about what the election was for, and they were almost certainly unaware of the candidates. Far from neglecting their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy, they were doing the right thing: if you don’t know what you’re voting for, it’s potentially irresponsible to vote at all.
Voter turnout in local elections is reaching an all-time low. Politicians and commentators moan about the apathy of the electorate, but General Elections show that if the electors have the facts, they’ll still make the effort to vote. All we need to do is to ensure that the electors have a similar level of awareness when it comes to local elections. And it shouldn’t be difficult.
The council is able to distribute printed material to each house in the city when it wants to. We get a quarterly magazine and a council-funded ultra-local newsletter. We get an official notice of election (“poll card”). What I’m suggesting is that the council produces something, perhaps alongside one of these, to explain forthcoming local elections to the public. It needn’t be expensive, or boring – it could easily go on a single sheet of A4. At a minimum, it would tell us:
1. What the forthcoming election is for;
2. How the voting system works; and
3. Who the candidates are.
In addition, I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility to also include:
4. Results of the previous election for the whole council;
5. Results of the previous election in that ward; and
6. A link to a council website which lists the candidates and links to their websites.
This would give everyone the chance to make an informed decision before polling day, and never again to discover candidates for the first time only when confronted with their name on the ballot paper.
So why does the council not provide its electorate with the material needed to make such an informed decision? I can guess. Finding out about candidates who might otherwise have remained unknown might inspire many people to venture out and vote, and quite frankly, if you’re from the parties who work hard to stuff out letterboxes with propaganda, why would you want the lesser-known candidates to get any unearned publicity? You’ve probably got higher priorities.
But I’m not talking about highlighting obscure independent candidates here. At the last County Council election, I did not receive a single piece of campaign literature from the Conservative Party, who were (and still are) the largest party on the council. As far as most people round here knew, voting for the main party on the council might not even have been an option. That might be an indictment of the local Conservative Party, but it’s far more of an indictment of the democratic system itself. We should have this information.
Of course, some enterprising third parties do attempt to educate the public. The Cambridge News will run a small piece on each ward, listing the candidates, and many of us might happen to buy that edition. There are political blogs (like my own Queen Ediths Online) which can help a tiny proportion of the electorate. But things could be so much better. Which incumbent councillors are going to be brave enough to take up this suggestion and kickstart local democracy by giving people the information they need?