It has been well publicised in the post-Election media coverage that it took 3.9million votes to elect a single UKIP candidate to parliament. The Green party saw 1.14million people putting a cross next to their name in return for the same number of MPs, while even the average number of votes required to secure the post for SNP candidates was something like 27,000.
Do you know how many votes it took to elect a local councillor in Eden District Council in Cumbria this year? Zero. In fact, it took the same number of votes to see 21 candidates elected to that particular local council. 21 ‘elected representative’ positions effectively without any elections being required.
Eden District Council should not of course be seen as the only ones facing this issue; up and down the country hundreds of seats in places large and small offered no form of options in local elections. It is expected that well over the previous high of 3% of the 9000 seats up for grabs went uncontested. Local councillors, whichever colour rosette they wore, simply had to put their names forward once more and they were able to continue in their role with no questions asked.
Simply put, this is scandalous.
Local councillors in many respects have far more in the way of a direct influence over local life than most MPs will ever have. They have control over practical issues such as waste collection, street repairs and lighting, as well as less seen but just as vital services including (but very much not limited to) social services, youth provision, health and social care, planning and local employment. They work with people and for people from the cradle to the grave, with their decisions impacting on local residents, organisations and businesses on a daily basis.
MPs on the other hand are more removed from these day to day decisions. They may set the overall strategic direction and provide a degree of funding to make some of these things happen, but in terms of regular impact the majority of them have very little for the average citizen.
This election saw 66.1 per cent of the electorate casting their votes in the general election, the highest number in 18 years. Two out of every three people cast a vote in the national; contrast this with voter numbers in 2012, when an average of just 31.3% of the electorate put a tick in the box to decide who their local representative was, assuming there was actually a choice to be made.
That the media focus solely on national issues can hardly be blamed; they are national institutions (international in most cases) so of course they are going to focus on national issues. However, there is such a clear divide between national and local coverage that of course voters are going to have little encouragement to find out about local candidates when the presidential style debates are dominating the headlines. The less they know about them, the less likely they are to see that there is an issue and potentially do something about it.
This is leaving the same people in the same posts, making the same decisions and having little in the way of appropriate challenge other than from perhaps a small number of local writers, reporters or activists, and that’s just not good enough.
Effective opposition is absolutely vital in a healthy democracy. Without it we risk small personal fiefdoms developing, where a small cabal of individuals holds sway over every local decision, acting with impunity and with no fear of reproach. Whether the opposition is in the right or not is in many respects irrelevant; the mere act of challenge goes towards ensuring that no short cuts are made, nor processes foregone for convenience’s sake.
An unelected individual rarely has any need for proving both competence and mandate. An incompetent or ineffective individual with opposition will be voted out of office should a viable alternative be in place; with no alternative they are able to continue as before, potentially making the same mistakes to the detriment of local people for years at a time.
Add to that the fact that they will not have to deliver what local people actually need, only their own impressions of what this might be, and you are left with an unhealthy system ripe for abuse. Usually a stock response to people who don’t like what their representative is doing is to simply reply “vote them out!”; when this option is removed, what further recourse is there?
Of course, there are a number of reasons why this situation has been allowed to arise, primarily (though not exclusively) the difficulty of finding interested and capable individuals to put themselves forward for elections. Too often the perceived glamour of parliament draws the politically interested to it like moths to a flame; none of them look towards the moonlight that is local government as it is deemed the lesser of the two roles.
Parties too are at fault. All too often decisions are made that if a seat or council control is unwinnable that they won’t bother to contest. Yes, this saves money which can perhaps be spent elsewhere, but at the same time it undermines the very fabric on which representative democracy is built upon. National parties simply must start taking local elections seriously if they are to actually be able to engage with and understand the hopes, fears, wants and needs of real people.
To address this two things must happen. Firstly, local elections need to introduce something called for often and loudly by many for a number of years: a ‘none of the above’ option. Whilst this wouldn’t introduce active challenge, it would certainly give voters the opportunity to remove those candidates who simply were not deemed up to the job. This would also give significant data to be analysed and assessed ahead of this rolling out to national and other elections.
Secondly, no party should be able to put forward a candidate for a parliamentary seat unless it also actively puts forward candidates for each of an area’s local elections. This is the only way to demonstrate that they are actually in touch with local people and able to understand what is needed to represent them. Of course not all councils should be run by one or other of the national parties – there are some excellent independent or local party councillors out there – but it does ensure that competition will always be in place.
This may go a long way to reconnecting party candidates to communities, as well as enabling local people to in return connect with them. It reinforces the importance of local democracy and puts the local level firmly back in place as the foundation upon which all other elective representation is based.
Despite a renewed level of interest and dialogue about national democracy, our system is threatened at its core; if we don’t act now, the gap between people and their representatives will continue to grow and we will never see the best that local democracy can offer in every locality.