There are plenty of articles about the failings of our national politicians. But they all ignore the leaders’ universal Achilles Heel: local election results, as well as the low turnout of them.
Corbyn, May, and Cable all pay attention to how their parties do in local elections, because it’s a good measure of how they perform at grassroots level. So if there’s significant change here, they’ll notice. But because we don’t vote at these hustings means we have less influence up Westminster.
You probably noticed the local elections earlier this year, with a third of borough councillors up for re-election. I was at the count and when the results came in, I was quietly surprised at how low they were. Victory margins were in the hundreds, sometimes tens, with total votes per ward in the low thousands.
Norreys was one of the most contested wards, with 3,030 votes cast – Labour overturning the seat with 1,157 votes. But what’s more interesting than Labour flipping the seat, is the fact that there was a mere 6% difference between Rachel Burgess’s victory, and David Lee’s second-place. 6%!
Such a minuscule amount means that if 74 more people had voted, then the seat would still be Conservative; Labour’s now growing presence on the Council would be diminished, and Theresa May wouldn’t have to keep a nervous eye on her backyard on Sunday afternoons.
Several other wards were in ridiculously close contention that evening. Maiden Erlegh, South Lake, and Hillside were all within striking distance for second place, had a few more votes been cast.
In the 2011 census, the adult population of the borough was 123,336 people. How many people voted in the local election? Not even a third, at just 33,957 ballots. Arborfield and Swallowfield were particularly poor, with just 802 and 808 votes respectively.
So the really important question is why do people not vote in local elections? Maybe it’s the whole ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ codswallop. Look to the above evidence to be proved wrong.
Maybe ‘I can’t be bothered’ is more persuasive? Registering to vote takes two minutes (and that’s an exaggeration), and going to the polling station takes ten – if you didn’t check Facebook as much, you could’ve gone and come back already.
Or is it ‘local politics isn’t important’? See, it is. It really is. It’s rarely about bin collection or litter down the local park, as many would assume. And just because you’re fairly happy with the current state of affairs is no reason not to want change. Local government has an oversized impact on the community; it dictates the allocation of money on our schools and shopping centres; it encourages local enterprise; it runs fairs and festivals. And different councillors will have a different impact on all of that.
Furthermore, because of the way national voting is skewed via first past the post, it takes local democracy to reflect our honest feelings about the country. Why do Corbyn and Cable make so much noise when their parties do well locally? Because they know that it means Labour and the Liberals are actually supported by local people over the Tories. A damaging run of results in Wokingham would threaten the Prime Minister far more than Brexit could.