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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Let’s have a proper debate about the UK’s membership of Europe

The European Parliament in Brussels.

The European Parliament in Brussels.

Amid the bizarre weather, the complaints about the gritting lorries, the flooding and the general January malaise, many people may have missed the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU.

But the issue which may not seem very important to us on a cold winter’s day in 2013 is sure to become THE political hot potato as the months tick by.

Indeed, there is a good chance that Europe – or rather the UK’s involvement with it – could be the topic which defines the next General Election.

David Cameron’s stated ambition to give the British people a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU was not entirely unexpected.

In response growing public discontent about the power of Brussels, the Prime Minister said it was ‘time for the British people to have their say”. (Well, if he’s still in power after the country goes to the polls, that is).

Mr Cameron has pledged an in/out referendum because he says the democratic consent for our membership of the EU is currently ‘wafer thin’.

Some Conservatives and Euro-sceptics branded the speech ‘statesmanlike’, saying it was long-overdue from a British Prime Minister.

Other political commentators felt it was ill-judged grand-standing which was bound to upset our continental neighbours and give businesses the jitters.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Sentinel Letter writer Ivan Latham is unequivocal in his opposition to the referendum and the idea of this country leaving the EU.

He wrote: ‘The day the UK exits the EU is the day I will book the tickets for a one-way trip for our family back to Berlin.’

Mr Latham believes the country needs a Pro-European voice to ‘counter the whining of Little Englanders who comprise UKIP and Euro-sceptics.’

While I can’t agree that only those two camps are concerned about our membership of the EU – and, more importantly, all it entails – Mr Latham is right about one thing.

He questioned: ‘Just how educated is your average Brit to make an informed decision?’

The truth is we don’t tend to have enlightened debate about Europe in this country.

Discussions are always hi-jacked by those who would have us ditch what they see as a blood-sucking, federalist nightmare and those who would have us building even closer ties with Brussels.

Mr Cameron seems to have bet his party’s (and possibly the UK’s) medium-term future on 17 red, as it were, and is preparing to spin the wheel if re-elected.

The problem, as I see it, is precisely one of education because the British public, as it stands now, is in no position to cast a vote.

We simply don’t understand the arguments for and against membership of the EU and we don’t really know what’s at stake.

For example, the EU is, unquestionably, Britain’s key trading partner and one can understand UK businesses feeling nervous about severing the umbilical cord to the continent.

But the truth is no-one really knows what the effect would be on UK trade and jobs of us ‘opting out’.

It’s not as if being in the EU is the only option. Other countries within Europe trade with the EU while retaining far greater independence.

My fear is that there is a very real danger the facts will be lost amid the rhetoric and the mud-slinging.

One thing that I am sure the Pro-EU campaigners would not contest is that, in recent years, very real and genuine concerns have built up in British households about the growing influence of Europe in our daily lives.

There is a feeling among many (and I’m not just talking here about the far right, UKIP or fully paid-up Euro-sceptics) that the British Government and, indeed, our judicial system is slowly losing power to the behemoth that is the EU.

These issues are understandably wrapped up with concerns over immigration, over EU nationals ‘milking’ the British welfare system and moves towards constructs such as a European Army which many feel are undermining this country’s independence.

There is no getting away from the fact that the reason no British Government in recent years has held a referendum on Britain adopting the Euro over the Pound is because the powers-that-be know damn well it would have been a resounding ‘no’.

On this Sceptered Isle there’s never been much of an appetite for the EU project which countries like France and Germany have embraced so warmly in the light of wars which ravaged the continent.

In the light of the PM’s speech, now is the time for an honest and open on the pros and cons, the benefits and disadvantages of our membership of the EU.

How much does it cost the British taxpayer? How much do we, as country, receive in return? What are the genuine benefits of membership to your average Briton? How does the UK fare compared to countries such as France and Germany? Will opting out of the EU give this country greater controls over its borders and improve job prospects for British workers?

Ignore the hysteria. As my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley argued many times, asking such questions doesn’t mean you are anti-European, a racist or a troublemaker.

It simply means that you are asking the right questions – as you are perfectly entitled to do.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday