Two Conservative MEPs argue in the Guardian today that voter apathy in local elections is the result of local councils not having enough real power. They are part of a group which think that every decision should be devolved to the lowest practicable level.
Having spent a few years feeling powerless in a local authority a while back I can certainly agree that councils do not really have enough say in their own business after many years of various governments taking more and more powers for themselves, but I can’t take this opinion to the illogical extremes of the Direct Democracy group.
For a start, the comparison with other countries is a little spurious. The argument goes that in France and Sweden local authorities raise a higher proportion of their income locally and have higher turnouts and then supposes that this is a causal relationship. I guess that this might be one factor among many, but hardly a main reason for not voting. Following that logic we should have had higher turnouts than the 61.4% and 59.4% that we had in the last couple of general elections.
Of course it is also possible that the 80% turnout in Swedish local elections is a result of them using proportional representation rather than anything to do with the arrangements for public finances.
Granted that one reason often given for voting is that “it doesn’t make any difference who gets in” (often said by those for whom it would make the most significant difference) but that could just as easily be a comment on the perception that councils and governments are run by officers and civil servants rather than the politicians – Yes Minister has a lot to answer for.
I do quite like the idea of having greater local accountability and discretion but my main disagreement with the Direct Democracy group is really in the idea of where you draw the line on ‘practicable’. They seem to think that just about everything should be local. The example they give is:
Do council elections determine where our children go to school, or whether the incinerator is sited nearby, or whether the local hospital is closed?
I tried to imagine the country if decisions on hospitals and incinerators were taken locally. Nobody would dare suggest an incinerator or landfill site in their back yard (or a prison or detention centre) but every town with more than 20,000 population would try and build its own hospital. I can’t see that such a system would ever lead to another power station getting built either.
As for keeping local taxes local, that would give an unhealthy advantage to a few places, including Crawley and blight most others. I’ll admit it would be fun for a couple of years, as Crawley could have extremely low council tax and yet afford to build enormous or expensive civic amenities – like it used to – but the novelty would wear off when thousands of refugees from Sunderland, Exeter or wherever all came here.
Why can’t so-called experts ever latch onto an idea and then decide to go for it in moderation?
There is a simpler explanation for it all. Rather than saying that “voter antipathy is a function of the powerlessness of our local authorities” why not admit that it is a function of our celebrity culture. Voters like to vote for (or against) those they have heard of and in local elections they have rarely heard of anyone. Most of the country reads celebrity magazines magazine or tabloids and not the local papers or and certainly not political parties’ newsletters which are the only places most council election candidates’ names would ever turn up.