Ray Dawe: sad reality for democracy is that only a third voted

In last week’s County Times people wrote in about the recent elections. One letter started, ‘Can I be the only person worried about our local elections?’ and then went on to say, ‘you are given a voting slip with the candidates’ names and political parties. That’s all that’s available… so please can we… in this day and age make these elections meaningful’. Another person said, ‘We received advance literature from only one candidate’.

On the BBC Southern news the day after the election they interviewed a candidate who didn’t put out any literature, didn’t canvass and didn’t go the count and who was telephoned to say that he had won! His comments seemed to express more shock that he had won and how it might affect his life than much thought about serving those who had just voted him in.

There have been all sorts of comments about the election results but the sad reality for democracy is that only about a third of the electorate were actually interested enough to vote. The new phenomenon of UKIP managed to secure typically 25 per cent of the votes, or support from about eight per cent of the total electorate.

What is most interesting though is that UKIP’s vote didn’t come from the previously non-voting population, as turnout was broadly flat. The national media though is full of speculation about whether this is a watershed moment for British politics. Well maybe, but on the other hand the outcome is rather banal in as far as not much has actually changed and UKIP members will not be in a position to make policy in any council and will now, as with West Sussex County Council, either each act independently or have to form themselves into a working group and agree policies. Either way, they will now be exposed to public scrutiny and media comment about what they say and do.

So in summary, we have had an election where the public didn’t know a thing about some of the winning candidates or their policies and the overall political map of council control in the country has hardly altered.

Inevitably there will be those who blame politicians for the low turnout. Well, as I have often pointed out in this column, we at local level are just like you. We have put ourselves forward for election and I believe members of all parties really do their best to look at the problems and opportunities and make the best judgement. However, we know that council meetings from parish (right on voters’ doorsteps) to county council are poorly attended and people rely heavily on sound-bites and castigate politicians when they don’t like a decision. But how often do they think about what they would have done if they had been in their local councillor’s shoes, particularly since they, like those councillors, would then need to get to grips with the finer and broader arguments of the matter?

Probably the number one reason people claim they do not vote is that their one vote will not make a difference. The counter to that is simply to note that if all the people saying this voted in the next election, they could dictate the winners to the rest of us.

Maybe we can assume that the two thirds of the electorate who didn’t vote are in fact broadly content with the way things are. The problem with this view is that the minority who do actually turn out to vote could change things for the majority. So am I unreasonable in suggesting that If anyone decides they want to have their say, and that includes about leaving things the way they are, then they should try to learn what they are voting for and why decisions are made, and then go and vote? While it may take more effort on their part to do this, I also agree with the writer of the letter I mentioned that to stand as a candidate in an election and not distribute any information or appear in public really shows scant respect for the electorate or the democratic process.

If we vote and things do not go our way, then we can complain all we want. We will at least know that we played our part.