Now that the dust is beginning to settle over last week’s elections, we can reflect on many significant political achievements. The campaign for London Mayor and the accompanying battle for seats on the London Assembly demonstrated that London is Labour – with the outgoing Conservative Boris Johnson already seeming almost an aberration. No less significant than the election of Sadiq Khan, was the success of Marvin Rees, giving Bristol a black mayor to help right the historic wrongs of that city’s association with slavery. The SNP’s much-heralded success actually saw them loose a share of the vote and their majority in Holyrood. Labour pipped the Conservatives into second place on votes received, but their own share continued to fall – down another 2% on their 2015 performance.
And the big, and surprise winners, were Police and Crime Commissioners – elected in every instance on a higher – in some case (eg Dyfed Powys) much higher turnout than in previous years.
Despite the excitement, rows and exhaustive/exhausting analysis, the big winner last Thursday was none of the above candidates or parties. In fact it was none of the above on any ballot in any election that took place – it was the people who didn’t vote and the people who couldn’t vote.
Hang on, you will say – turnout was up? This is a good news scenario for voter engagement?
And yes, it is true – the appetite to vote was greater not just for PCCs (who saw increases in turnouts of up to 32% and overall participation of up to 49%). In Scotland, turnout rose by 5 points to 55.6%. Wales was up more than 3 points to 45.3%, and in London by more than 7 points to 45.3% for the Mayor and 45.6% (up nearly 5 points) for the Assembly.
But even though these increases are very welcome, you will notice that at very best 9 out of every 20 voters stayed at home. Even for the most powerful directly elected politician in the country, 11 out of 20 were disengaged.
And that is using the last set of relevant elections as a bench-mark. If you want to emphasise the scale of the problem, just look to last year’s General Election. There are all sorts of reasons why votes in General Elections are higher than in local ones – but turnout rates were still only 71.1% in Scotland, 65.6% in Wales and 65.4% in London.
But as well as people who don’t vote, there are those who can’t vote – because they are not on the Electoral Register. Here the government’s drive to implement Individual Electoral Registration (IER) – against the advice of the Electoral Commission and drawing criticism from the Electoral Reform Society – has coincided with an estimated 1.4m names coming off the Electoral Register using 2014 as a benchmark1. Those unregistered tend to be groups who are anyway underrepresented in the political process.
All of the above is not healthy. But there seems little appetite for decisive action to address widespread and embedded disengagement with the political process. Moves to expand the franchise to 16 and 17 years olds in forthcoming EU referendum (following huge participation by this group in the Scottish referendum) were blocked by government. There is an antipathy to electronic voting. You could make voting mandatory and fine people who refuse – but that’s too much stick and no carrot for my liking. Or you could change the electoral system. Critics say that would not necessarily increase engagement, but it would unarguably make politics more relevant.
A change in our politics is already taking place. Devolution of power means devolution of politics too. We have top up lists and second preference voting. Andy Burnham talks of swapping Westminster for Manchester. But to truly overcome what is still a significant worrying democratic deficit, we must go further. I am delighted to see Sadiq and Marvin in their city halls and admire their remarkable achievements. I hope this will facilitate and inspire more participation in our politics – for the good of us all.
1 Labour Research Department, “Missing Millions” May 2016
This post also appears in “The Huffington Post“