Beating voter apathy more important than who won this time around

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

I can’t help but feel local elections are akin to a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the S.S. Titanic.

They actually do little more than divert our attention away from the iceberg looming up on the Starboard side.

As vital as they are to local democracy, it is hard for me to get too excited beyond a private smile when someone I know to be a good councillor (irrespective of their political affiliations) is re-elected.

At least then I can rest assured that, in their particular ward, local people will have a voice and that voice will come from someone who cares and who isn’t just trying to climb the greasy pole.

Of course, it isn’t just me who struggles to muster much interest in local elections. It’s the majority of voters too.

The turnout across Staffordshire varied from the anomaly that is Cheslyn Hay, Essington and Great Wyrley (52 per cent) down to a paltry 21 per cent in Keele, Knutton and Silverdale where Labour’s bright young thing Gareth Snell met his Waterloo.

I guess the average turnout was around 30 per cent.

Simply put: The majority of the electorate are even less bothered about voting in these polls than they are at General Election time.

For me, this apathy is by far the greatest threat to our democracy and the biggest issue facing politicians and parties who, by the very nature of the system, live for short-term gain.

The word you often hear after an election is that parties need to ‘re-engage’ with the electorate.

Indeed Labour MP Tristram Hunt used it yesterday in his column in The Sentinel.

The word re-engage is as close as you’ll ever get to an apology from your MP, a local party leader, the Prime Minister or his Right Honourable ‘Friend’ on the other side of the Despatch Box.

It covers a multitude of sins, stops politicians from having to admit they’ve made any mistakes, and is their way of explaining away the fact that election turnouts have been falling in the UK since the early 1950s.

Until we get a grip of this by impressing upon primary and secondary school children the importance of casting a vote, come hell or high water, then I’m afraid apathy will continue to reign.

Here in Staffordshire, as expected all parties were trying to find crumbs of comfort in the election result which actually meant very little changed.

The Conservatives held on to control of the authority with the slimmest of minorities while Labour enjoyed the typical resurgence of a party in opposition during the mid-term of a government taking unpopular decisions.

The fact is many people do find it impossible to divorce national politics from local politics and thus many a hard-working ward councillor pays the price for what his or her party has or hasn’t been doing at Westminster.

As a case in point in our county, poor Lib Dem councillors vanished off the political map – paying the price for their counterparts in the House of Commons selling their souls to the Coalition dream.

Meanwhile Ukip came from nowhere to grab a quite remarkable 24 per cent of the vote (broadly in line with the national picture) – but actually only won two seats as opposed to four the last time around.

It would be very easy to dismiss Ukip as the recipient of this year’s protest vote or to try to besmirch the party, as some leading politicians have done, as a haven for fools and extremists.

Yes, there is an element of protest voting going on as regards Ukip – just as there was when the BNP gained a foothold in Stoke-on-Trent.

But I think the message from the electorate is more nuanced than simply being a case of ‘anything other than red or blue at the moment’.

At a time of austerity and deep economic uncertainty, I think many people are tired of the spin, point-scoring and yah-boo politics which is the bread and butter of mainstream parties.

I also believe that Ukip has touched a chord with those who are fed up of the Tories, Labour and the Lib-Dems skirting around the important issues of Europe and immigration.

Not so long ago Ukip and its rather eccentric leader were seen as little more than a fringe group.
But last week almost a quarter of those who could be bothered to vote chose to support Ukip.

That’s a lot of votes.

Thus one can understand the conviction of Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s that his party isn’t “just some little pressure group that will go away if someone in No 10 starts singing the same song”.

If nothing else perhaps Ukip’s populist success will force the mainstream parties to ‘re-engage’ with the public on the issues that really matter to them.

Oops, there’s that word again.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

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