Yesterday’s local elections produced another low turn out. About a third of the electorate bothered to vote, even with the added ‘excitement’ of deciding on an elected mayor in some cities. Although the debates locally were passionate and heated they were amongst a tiny proportion of voters. Nationally the press were disinterested and Westminster politicians held themselves aloof; ‘places’ don’t matter, ‘policies’ are where the action lies if you’ve made the big time.
So local democracy has a problem and those who care about it are wondering what to do. Peter Honey, the behavioural psychologist suggested just four options when faced with a problem.
- Do nothing. Its always a valid option and sometimes quite wise but ostriches, heads and sand come to mind. Somehow the time is never right and taking a risk requires courage. We need to steel ourselves to challenge something familiar. but often doing nothing just means the problems get worse.
- Alter your perception of the problem. Often problems are in the eye of the beholder. Voter disinterest is obviously a major issue for those passionate about local democracy but most don’t find voting in local elections even merits the minor inconvenience of a change in a morning or evening routine or being sufficiently organised to arrange a postal vote. Given this, if we really believe in local choice, then locals have chosen to ignore elections. Perhaps we should focus less on elections and instead on more participative forms of engagement.
- Persuade the problem people to change.The problem is always ‘them’. Wrestling more powers or more interest from Whitehall is not an overnight solution. ‘Educating’ an electorate in the importance of good citizenship and Athenian ideals is the work of generations. You can change other people but few really understand well how to do this and the results are never swift.
- Modify the situation. Change the situation and you change the behaviour. By starting to do things differently ourselves we immediately alter the circumstances that created the behaviour that causes problems. The likelihood of them reoccurring diminishes. So in this instance, those in favour of local democracy must change before they can expect any change from anyone else.
So what can we do if we accept that modifying the situation and our role in it as proponents of democracy is the most viable course of action. The principle of ‘positive deviance’ might be helpful. This tells us that in any situation there are people who buck the trend, who seem to be getting different outcomes from the same circumstances. Sometimes these people may be unpalatable to us. For local democracy we should look at George Galloway, Ray Mallon or Stuart Drummond. These are people who according to current wisdom ought not to be winning and are treated with disdain or disrespect. But they are winning elections and creating public debate. And the debate is every bit as important as the election.
So if local government is not to continue along a route of public disinterest and political disenfranchisement it needs to stop looking at others, stop repeating the same activities and stop promoting the same tired messages. Instead it needs to take a long hard look at itself and consider how it will change to make itself a critical element in the problems we face as individuals and as a nation.