Aisha Iqbal: It’s time voting in elections - local and other - became mandatory

Leeds Local Elections 2015 at the Leeds First Direct Arena. Counting gets underway. 8th May 2015. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Leeds Local Elections 2015 at the Leeds First Direct Arena. Counting gets underway. 8th May 2015. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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In less than six weeks, we’re all invited to a day out at the races again - the poll races that is.

I know that after the last few turbulent years in the political landscape nationally, many people are fed up of the word ‘election’.

National politics is likely to play a major role in this year's local elections across Yorkshire.

National politics is likely to play a major role in this year's local elections across Yorkshire.

But I genuinely feel local elections are our chance to really change things that affect us directly on an everyday level, and we should all grab that opportunity with gusto.

I guess being a Local Government reporter, I would say that. But bear with me, please.

The last time we had a local election in Leeds was in 2016, a month before the EU referendum.

But while the turnout for the referendum was 70 per cent in Leeds, the citywide turnout for the local elections was just 34.5 percent, with just 185,616 people voting out of a total electorate of 538,012.

The turnout for the snap general election last year, meanwhile, was 67 per cent, with the highest turnout being in Leeds North East at 76 per cent.

The local election turnout is a truly appalling figure and a poor - and I think unrealistic - reflection of the importance we place on the decisions being made locally on our behalf.

If we didn’t care about local politics, the YEP’s letters pages and comments sections would certainly be a whole lot less busy.

In the year that we are celebrating 100 years of women (and more men) being granted the right to vote, the continuing low local election turnouts are an even more disappointing fact.

Speaking of the 2016 locals, there was literally not a single change at the council, with every one of Leeds’s 99 city council seats being held by the incumbent party or candidate. Yes, it might have turned out that way anyway even if more people had bothered to vote. But it might not. And if only 1 of 3 of us bother to vote, we will never know.

At a more hyper-local level, there were some even more appalling turnouts in 2016.

In Hyde Park, a student heavy area, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it was the lowest overall turnout (just 23 percent ) because much of the population there is transient.

But in other inner and outer city heartlands, it’s a lot more difficult to explain.

Working class heartlands like Hunslet and Middleton (both held by Labour for a long time) had turnouts of just 25 per cent.

Even stubbornly resistant areas like Morley, which has been dominated by the Morley Borough Independents for a decade, only managed 30 per cent.

The highest turnouts were actually in the slightly more affluent districts, Otley and Yeadon (a Lib Dem stronghold) with 45.1 per cent, and Adel and Wharfedale (dominated by the Tories) with 45.5 per cent.

So even the areas with the highest turnouts were limping very slowly towards a 50 percent interest level.

In terms of our everyday lives, - i.e, when the bins get collected, what new developments are happening in our neighbourhoods, how much police and other resources we are getting, how clean our streets are, how varied our local economy is, how good or thorough our bus routes are - decisions made locally are the ones that really matter.

So what is it that is making people engage so little?

Is disillusionment, at one end of the spectrum, and complacency at the other end driving this?

It can’t simply be the big egos and bluster at national level overshadowing the real nitty gritty stuff at local level, although this clearly happens to some extent.

By the way, Leeds as a whole hasn’t always been the seeming one-party state that many observers often see it as.

And Leeds voters are definitely capable of changing the story.

When I first started working for the YEP back in 2007, the city was run by a Lib Dem-Tory coalition.

Interestingly, too, the share of the two main parties’ votes went UP the last time Leeds had a local election.

Labour’s share went up 4.4 per cent, the Tories’ by 1.5 per cent.

Meanwhile UKIP went down 4,2 per cent and the Lib Dems and Greens also saw their share fall slightly.

The vote share of independent parties was up slightly.

I think it’s time that voting at local elections (and indeed all other elections) became mandatory, with a ’none of the above’ option also available for those who genuinely feel there is no voice they deem worthy to represent them. I know silence speaks volumes, but in this case, it’s highly damaging to all our interests - and to the very ideals of democracy that we often decry other countries for.

This is OUR local election. The process - and the result - belongs to us, the voters.

But - and it’s a cliché I know - if you don’t vote, you don’t really have a right to complain.

And I definitely reserve my right to complain - and to hit them in the ballots this May 3.