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EDITIONS
Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK
Why local elections matter to us all
Local elections billboard
Drumming up interest in polls - but will voters listen?

The veteran local councillor rolled his eyes and thumped the desk with weary resignation.

"Every year it's the same," he said. "No matter how much we trudge the streets, fewer people vote.

"I'm just getting used to having a dreadful time every spring."

Another councillor in the same area recalls many years sitting outside polling stations to record the number of voters turning up.


There is little doubt that after polling day, many headlines will focus again on dramatically low turnouts

"It tends to go quiet when EastEnders is on," he said. "Woe betide you if there is a big football match on television."

Neither man has high hopes for this year's elections. Years of commitment to local politics amid increasing apathy are taking their toll.

Yet despite the vastly reduced powers of local government, councils can still make a big difference to things voters use every day.

And with the wake-up call provided by the French presidential elections, which saw the far-right prosper from low turnouts and widespread apathy, the importance of this year's elections is brought into sharp focus.

Powerless

All the predictions are that the polls in England will see a new record set for stayaway voters. And in certain towns in the north west, that apathy could allow the far-right British National Party to make gains.

But does it really matter? Local councils are so powerless these days that surely it isn't really that important who gets elected.

That's one way of looking at it. The other is to consider whether we really should care who has a say in the 60bn of taxpayers money spent every year by local authorities.

Councillors make decisions about schools and social services. They deliver their verdict on planning applications and transport issues.

On my 10 minute walk to work each day, there are a handful of things which the local authority has the power to do something about.

Oasis

There is the rubbish which remains uncollected because the refuse department has strict rules about what it will and will not take away.

Rubbish
Councils have more to do than clearing up rubbish
There are the abandoned cars rusting away on almost every street.

There is the patch of land over which local residents are fighting plans for a new housing development.

There are the queues of traffic backed up down the hill because of road work on the new one-way system.

There is the green oasis of calm which is our local park - still green after a successful campaign against a massive leisure complex.

Experiments

And, of course, there is the cracked pavement, the failsafe fallback of every community politician.


Local elections become a mind-numbing merry-go-round of claim and counter claim

On 2 May, candidates will be contesting around 6,000 seats in more than 150 local authorities, many of them in the UK's biggest cities.

There are also polls for directly-elected mayors in a number of areas.

Experiments with electronic and postal voting, mobile polling booths and text message ballots are being conducted around the country.

Yet there is little doubt that after polling day, many headlines will focus again on dramatically low turnouts.

Power

If politicians are puzzled by this, however, they might consider how they could do their bit to increase interest in local democracy.

Polling station
A thing of the past? New voting systems are being trialled
For all Labour's talk of using devolution to give local people more of a say in their communities, little has been done to restore power to local government.

Councillors increasingly find their hands tied when it comes to housing, social services and education.

And there appears no hurry to put some of these powers back in the hands of local politicians.

But there is more to it than that. Political parties too often use the local elections as an excuse to batter each other about issues which local councils no longer have the power to address.

Stagnant

Election literature is often bland, taking a grossly broad-brush approach. Most people are against crime - we don't need to be told that our election candidates are against it too.


Much of this comes back to the debate about how politicians can re-engage with the electorate

It leads to a stagnant, often meaningless debate certain to turn off even the most determined of local voters.

Council elections are also too often viewed - by the media as well as politicians - as a mirror of national politics, a glorified opinion poll on the state of the parties.

That in turn encourages protest votes against the policies of national government which does nothing for local democracy.

Local elections become a mind-numbing merry-go-round of claim and counter claim with those who bothered to vote stuck in the middle with many of their questions unanswered.

Single issue

It is surely one of the reasons why some people are turning away from the three main political parties and standing for election themselves.

And that in turn can lead to narrow, single issue politics dominating the council chamber, an agenda of self interest which does nothing to invigorate local democracy.

Much of this, of course, comes back to the debate about how politicians can re-engage with the electorate.

It's all very well to experiment with new ways of voting, but people will remain nonplussed about issues until politicians find a way of raising their interest.

And, as ever, part of the answer is in their own hands - because it is often the way politicians treat the public which makes voters less inclined to visit their polling station.

All of which should be a cause for great concern, because whatever its ills, local politics really does matter.

Click here to contact Mark Davies with political news


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