The local council elections are tomorrow, but many people in Leeds are unlikely to be making the short walk to their local polling station. aisha iqbal reports on why every vote counts.
THERE are 549,041 people registered to vote in tomorrow’s Leeds City Council local elections.
That’s more than half a million voices which could and should be contributing to shaping the city’s destiny.
Local authorities run many of the services – and make many of the decisions – that affect our everyday lives and our neighbourhoods.
The local elections are your chance to make the most important decision of all – who’s in and who’s out at Leeds Civic Hall. Whether they have earned your vote, or whether they have failed to live up to previous promises, it’s your chance to show them through the ballot box.
And yet, if recent trends are anything to go by, only three in 10 of us – fewer than 200,000 – will actually make the effort to go and put a cross in a box. By crude comparison, more than a million people voted for the winner of the last series of The X-Factor.
So why is it that so many of us are apparently willing to forego our hard-won democratic right?
Dr Victoria Honeyman, a teaching fellow at the University of Leeds’s politics department, believes that increasing centralisation of local government powers – something she says was developed by Mrs Thatcher but carried forward by successive Governments – is a key factor.
She has studied in-depth the dynamics and machinery of British politics, and the impact of socio-economic factors on voter-apathy.
“A lot of people believe local politics doesn’t count, that the amount their local politicians can do is limited because of what London controls,” she explains. “There is an argument that [voter-turnout] went down under Tony Blair, because people couldn’t tell the difference between the parties. The Labour party said it was to do with contentment. That is up for debate, but it doesn’t surprise me that turnout is down.”
Dr Honeyman also notes that in an age when we can make so many key decisions at the click of a button, the text-and-tablet generation just doesn’t have the time or the inclination to trudge to a church hall or primary school to assert its fundamental democratic right.
“New media is very important and will make a very big difference,” Dr Honeyman says. “Twitter and Facebook means councils are able to reach out to people in a way that they have never been able to do before.”
The Representation of the People Act 2000, designed to increase elector turnout and reduce voter-apathy, set in place a number of pilots and initiatives. In Leeds, a 100 per cent postal voting election was tried once. The pilot was moderately successful and now contributes to Leeds having the biggest postal vote of any city – 93,000 people have chosen to vote by post this year.
“They were investigating a lot of the new technologies,” explains Dr Honeyman. “Unfortunately it came at the same time as the scandal with postal voting. So the idea of text voting or polling booths in supermarkets or internet voting seems to have died away.
“But it does still leave us with a big problem. I am quite happy to go down to my local polling station but a lot of people, particularly young people, who are used to on-demand technology, don’t want to do that. I can book a holiday online, I can buy a car online, but I can’t vote online. It seems very antiquated and the argument is that it is out of touch.
“I do understand why they are sticking with the old system. But I don’t see how it can possibly continue long-term, because the electorate is changing and the demand is huge.”
Another factor in low voter-turnout, according to Dr Honeyman, is that people can confuse local politics – and politicians – with national, and can “very easily accidentally opt out” of local democracy. Local-level politicians could help themselves, and their cause, by disassociating themselves from the national party-driven agenda, she believes.
“It is a weird disconnect in people’s minds,” she says. “If I go out on to the street and ask people about parking issues or street lamps going off at midnight or the state of the local park, people care but they don’t necessarily equate that with local elections. They think local councillors are just messing about with silly little things while the bigger issues are being decided elsewhere. And therefore, while they are interested in these things, that wouldn’t necessarily get them out to the ballot box to vote.”
Dr Honeyman believes that the traditional low turnout at local elections – and even lower at European polls – is also an indicator of a general lack of education and information at grass-roots level.
“We don’t teach people in school about the actual mechanisms of politics in Britain,” she says. “So nobody’s really sure what the local councillors do, what you can get your local councillors to do versus your MP, or how the two connect together.”
Leeds’s local election machine is a massive logistical operation. Tens of thousands of ballot papers will be sorted by an army of 1,700 volunteers based at the counting centres at the Civic Hall and the Town Hall, with many others manning the city’s 363 polling stations spread across 33 council wards. Polling stations are open until 10pm, at which point all ballot papers – including those collected from a final sweep of the city’s postboxes – will be taken to the counting centres. Across Yorkshire and the Humber, almost four million people will also potentially be voting for the European elections, with teams at Leeds Town Hall co-ordinating 21 separate EU counts.
The man in charge of ensuring that both counts go without a hitch is Returning Officer Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council. He explains that planning for the election – which this year will select one third of the city’s 99 council seats – started more than a year ago.
“Lots of safeguards need to be in place to ensure a very fair and very transparent election process,” he says.
“The levels of integrity in UK elections are amongst the best in the world, so it’s a big prize to lose.”
The Leeds vote count will actually start at 9.30am on Friday morning, with the European count on Sunday from 4.30pm.
“It can get a bit fraught at times,” admits Tom. “The most interesting ones are when it is a very close run count and people ask for recounts. It’s all part of the integrity of the process.”
Asked why even the most disillusioned of the electorate should take the time to vote, he says: “The democratic process matters. There are lots of things that affect people’s lives and they don’t necessarily make the full connection between the elections and their own lives. Also, this year in particular, it is 100 years after the start of the First World War. People fought for the right to vote. That’s a very good reason for people to come out and vote this year.”
Dr Honeyman is even more emphatic that every vote counts, not least because a potentially high ‘protest’ vote – and the apparent rise of certain fringe parties with controversial views - could be game-changers. She believes there may even be a higher turnout in 2014 because some non-traditional parties might be seen to be “providing a home for people who didn’t necessarily have one before”.
“Protest voting when you think the party might get a bit of a drumming is one thing, but if you protest vote under proportional representation (the system used for the European elections) it counts a lot more,” she explains.
“So people who are protest voting need to think about what it is they are protest voting for. You don’t want to accidentally vote for something that you are not really in favour of. You want to make a positive choice rather than a negative one.”
Above all, says Dr Honeyman, not voting at all is the most damaging of all the options.
“Your vote is never wasted,” she says. “The beauty of voting is you get to go and put a cross in a box and you don’t have to tell anyone who you are voting for. If you want to protest vote, you can.
“But in my personal view, you should always go out and vote. People have died so we can have the right to vote.”