The Tragedy of Tiny Turnouts: Panicking for all the Wrong Reasons

26 May

Over the past week the UK has seen local council elections and a European Parliamentary election take place in which the turnout was 36% and 33.8% respectively.

In response, the mainstream media has all but abandoned any sense of perspective by relentlessly portraying the success of UKIP as something of a defining moment in the history of British democracy.

With an almost unanimous consensus, news outlets from across the political spectrum have praised Farage’s party at every possible opportunity for seemingly rocking the political foundations of the country with its latest successes at the ballot box.

“Farage has won, everybody in Westminster panic!” seems to be the order of the day.

But why is such a modest victory or second place finish in a set of elections with embarrassingly low turnouts sending the British political establishment and its subservient media into such a frenzy?

Surely the far less widely discussed, but far more shocking, result for any democratic state following such elections is that two thirds of the British public decided not to vote at all?

To state the blatantly obvious, the results from last week’s local elections mean that the total number of votes cast for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens and various other smaller parties and independents COMBINED equaled just over one third of the public vote.

Furthermore, and I think this really puts things into perspective, 91% of eligible UK voters did not vote for UKIP in the European elections and 93% of eligible voters did not vote for UKIP in the local elections.

And yet, in the world of contemporary British politics this has come to be universally portrayed as an earthquake, a landslide, a rout…

Rather than turn the nation’s attention to the problems that underlie such chronically low turnouts and kick start an informed debate about voter engagement and improving the democratic process, the mainstream media has opted to brush all that boring stuff aside and replace it with the entirely erroneous belief that the rise in support for UKIP represents a protest vote.

Surely the protest came from those who stayed at home?

Equally problematic has been the response of politicians from the main Westminster parties who have all rambled on at mind-numbing length about how they intend to counter the UKIP “threat.” Whether it’s some Tory MP saying that they get the message and will get tougher on immigration; or the Labour leader saying that his party will respond to the call for change, those in the Westminster bubble seem committed to wooing the 1/3 of voters who turned out at the local elections, rather than think about how to include and engage with the 2/3 who didn’t vote at all.

This comprehensive failure of representative democracy, which has resulted in the one man band that is UKIP setting the political agenda despite obtaining nowhere near 10% of the eligible public vote, is the state we now find ourselves in.

Accordingly, the accusation that Westminster is out of touch with the average man or woman on the street has never been truer.

It is true not because the average voter believes we need more scapegoating of immigrants, slashing of welfare, charging for use of the NHS, opposition to gay marriage, quarantining of HIV positive citizens, stopping international aid to places like bongo bongo land, introducing a flat rate of tax, abolishing maternity pay, shooting “poofters”, sending Lenny Henry back to live in a “Black country”, stopping women from wearing trousers lest men lost interest in them, preaching that Nigerians are bad people, baiting of Muslims or allowing husbands to rape their wives;  but because the average voter simply isn’t voting and there appears to be no interest in enticing them to do so.

And so my question is simply this: Is pandering to this band of UKIP balloons really going to get disaffected voters more engaged in politics and return to the ballot box? Will witnessing otherwise competent politicians wilfully enter into some sort of bizarre “Farage-off” competition whilst being cheered on by the Daily Mail really help matters here?

Well, maybe, but only because they will have become so horrified at the level of intolerance on display from our elected representatives that they will feel compelled to vote and send them packing.

But surely that can’t be something that those of a reasonable outlook on life can be hoping for? It would be a complete abrogation of responsibility to just sit tight and hope that Farage bullies Cameron or Miliband into becoming so reactionary that enough non-voters come back to the ballot box and restore some common decency by kicking them out.

The only solution here, as I see it, with regards to local elections (the woeful turn out at European level will have to wait for another post), lies not in nationwide campaigns of who can best imitate Nigel Farage; but in breaking down the over centralized UK state system by empowering local councils, and thus communities, to a far greater extent.

As Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (an unlikely source I’ll admit) has argued “Give councils more power and you will attract a higher caliber of candidate as well as boosting participation at local elections. In Britain, local authorities raise 25% of their budgets and turnout is typically around 30%. In France those figures are, respectively, 50 and 55 percent; in Switzerland 85 and 90 percent.”

Keywords here: more power, higher caliber of candidate, boosting participation. Sounds good eh?

Looking to Norway things are even more striking. There they have turnouts of around 70% in local elections that comprise 431 municipalities (Scotland has roughly the same population and only 32 municipalities by the way) which run primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen services, unemployment services, planning, economic development and road infrastructure, and you will not find a single person in the world who believes that their democracy is in a poor state.

In addition to revenue raising powers, the size of councils themselves should be drastically reduced. At present the average population size per UK council is 152, 680 people and can in no way be described as local.

In contrast, the average population size per council in some of our European neighbours is as follows:

Austria : 3,560

Denmark: 56, 590

Finland: 15, 960

France: 1,770

Germany: 7,080

Italy: 7,470

Spain: 5, 680

UK: 152, 680

If you find these results staggering, the statistics with regards to local election turnout are even more mind blowing

Austria: 73%

Denmark: 69%

Finland: 61%

France: 64%

Germany: 60%

Italy: 75%

Spain: 73%

UK last week: 36%

It seems easy then doesn’t it: More power to smaller local units of governance = considerably higher voter turnout.

It might not be a cast iron guarantee of success, but I would say that given the statistics in other countries it would have a pretty good chance of improving matters. I also don’t think that it would be a particularly controversial proposal, perhaps even a vote winner, if put to the dedicated every time voter AND the 2/3 of Brits who didn’t show up at the last local elections.

A high voter turnout would also, I am convinced, severely dilute the impact of UKIP and perhaps redress a media balance that is so far tipped in their favour at present that you would think BBC question time had been rebranded “Farage Hour” and Sky News replaced with “UKIP Spokesperson on Demand.”

And even if UKIP continued to perform well after the UK establishment had injected a large dose of democracy into the status quo by empowering local communities and enhancing voter turnout then it would still be worth doing for its own sake. At least we could then say that they were capable of obtaining something like an acceptable level of democratic support from the public as a whole for their political agenda.

The above may seem radical, and to an electorate so paralysed by top down, centralised government it should come as no surprise when proposals of this nature are labelled as such.

But the important thing to remember here is that enhancing local democracy would do nothing more than make Britain normal when compared our European neighbours.

The wish to be more like other European countries when it comes to democratic representation is not radical, regardless of what the Eurosceptic lobby may have us believe. Wishing to remain this below par for no good reason, on the other hand, certainly is.

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