Comment: Why was local election turnout so low this year?

Now the local elections are over, we can get on with the real business of improving community democracy. While I’m disappointed I lost, I’m determined to bounce back.

The big questions from the election is why did so few people vote? Turnout was only 1,679 in South Jesmond, compared with nearly 4,000 in 2010. We don’t know the reasons, but this a problem nationally, though the turnout is particularly low in South Jesmond – perhaps because there are so many students here. From observation of the media and comments I have heard, I’d say there are three reasons:

1. Lack of awareness: nationally, the news focus was on the London mayor. Do local people, particularly the young, know much about the local council? Do they know who their councillors are and what they do? From talking to medical students, the answer is no.

But perhaps the council does not make it easy.

2. Cynicism about politics and politicians: I was shocked to read a report of a young Newcastle woman who, asked about the election, said –”I’m not being ageist, but don’t ask me, ask those old people over there, they’re still into that kind of thing.” This is extremely disturbing, and a contrast to France, where 80% voted in the recent presidential election. Recent political scandals make cynicism understandable, but to me, this can only be changed by voting.

3. No big issues: on the doorstep, many people often say that they don’t have particular concerns about their neighbourhood. Of course some groups do have concerns – residents near Osborne Road don’t like the noise and heavy drinking, the elderly and those without cars want a better bus service, permanent residents don’t like houses in multiple occupation, and park users want to see better maintenance. Bin collections also feature. But overall we don’t find big concerns being expressed. That probably reflects the overall high income levels of this community. Issues tend to be about what people DON’T want rather than what they do want – they are against library charges, against closing the post office, and against building on the green belt.

Can we increase support and democratic interest in changes for the better? I believe we can. The council is very keen to involve more local people and groups in decision making around their community. This includes areas where cuts might be made. But I see this as a great opportunity for residents to become genuinely involved in local decisions. This will require new methods such as social media, the web and video interviews. There needs to be a reaching-out to young people and marginalised groups to help them to take part and contribute. Let’s see this happening before the next local election in two years.

Tony Waterston stood as Green Party candidate in South Jesmond at the last local election

2 thoughts on “Comment: Why was local election turnout so low this year?”

  1. Dan says:

    Hear hear Tony.

    I imagine the big reason for the 58% drop in turnout since 2010 was, that being a general election year, people were feeling more politically-minded – or simply casting their local votes by default.

    To say we spend the majority of our lives milling around our local neighbourhoods, it’s baffling that we have more interest in national issues. “Halt immigration,” they scream, or “re-increase the higher rate of tax for people earning over £150k”.

    Well I know no-one who earns even close to £150k, and I think a place like Jesmond could do with more ethnic diversity. So why concern ourselves with national issues – the depth of which we’re largely ignorant about? Let’s see reasonable business rates for fledgling local companies; better planning so our public services (well, what’s left of them) don’t haemorrhage money; and a closer working relationship between our community and the local authority over health and education.

    Let’s take off the blinkers and start making an effort to improve life and opportunities for the people around us.

  2. Sarah says:

    Whilst I recognise that this was not the core part of the argument, I’ll raise the issue anyway. I think to attempt to lay the blame partly on students is pretty ridiculous to be honest. Most likely the reason that the students you asked didn’t know about councillors and their role is because from my experience, it is rare to find a councillor that actually attempts to communicate with students and I would go as far to say that there are still councillors (not all but a good amount) that see students as a negative influence and we still hear people talking about residents and students. Students are residents, yes, they may be short-term residents, but they are still residents. To be honest, it feels as if most councillors really do not care about students, and just use them as a scapegoat.

    In my experience, there has only been one councillor and one newly elected councillor, that has attempted to communicate with the students and consciously work together with them – if they can do it, so can the others, I would like to suggest that it is because they do not know how to get into contact with people like the Student Union, but I find that hard to believe.

    Hopefully things will change, I can say that baby steps are perhaps being taken after the setting up of the City Council’s Student Forum, and this is a great group that listens to what students say. But I think things need to happen at a lower level starting with the individual councillors.

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