‘It’s the council’s responsibility to make sure people understand how to vote’

From voter apathy to using data, we find out how local authorities are attacking the big problems in local democracy

Using data to boost democracy

Darren Hughes, director of campaigns and research at the Electoral Reform Society

There is a lot of material on voter turnout in general but not very much on waht drives local election turnout. While people see that they can make more of an impact on local decisions than they can in Westminster, when it comes to voting they put more priority into voting in general elections. People feel they have influence but what they do about it is completely different.

We know what types of people are the most likely to vote – rural, white, elderly, high level of education, middle class – and that’s been academically proven through general election research. Even though there aren’t studies like that for local elections, ward by ward analysis for turnout mirrors exactly those factors. It’s possible that councils feel there is enough information at general level not to warrant further studies at local level.

If you look at the way councils are structured, the councils that elect every four years have a higher turnout than councils who do thirds and annual elections – that’s despite the demographics being very similar.

That could speak to voter fatigue. The issues being campaigned on and the effort candidates make is much more energised when elections happen once every four years, which does seem to lead to higher turnout. Perhaps we need more local elections that are sensitive to the business of peoples’ lives.

A political party that wants to do well should be organised and encourage as many people as possible to vote, so they can win. The voting system can sometimes be at fault, sometimes people feel that their vote is wasted.

It should be the councils’ responsibility to make sure that people understand how to vote and make it as easy as possible to get on the register. Someone neutral and independent is in a good position to encourage people in that way.

Councils have been given the responsibility to conduct elections and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be aiming for as close to 100% turnout as possible, rather than accepting the status quo.

Combating voter apathy

Dave Burn, head of democratic services and scrutiny at Lambeth council

Voter apathy resonates with us all in many respects. We had low voter registration levels comparatively a few years ago – we’re now up to 90%. But getting people on the register is one thing, getting them out to vote is another.

We have tried a range of things to encourage people to vote. One was tackling the misnomer that young people are not engaged. We’ve used youth council to demonstrate that’s not the case. A few years ago we deliberately asked young people to go out into the high street and ask [residents] if they were registered. They were shocked to be asked by young people and I think if we had had councillors out there asking we wouldn’t have got such a good response. Lots of people didn’t know how to vote and others were admitting they weren’t engaged. We didn’t necessarily follow that up but it gave us some ideas for future publicity.

In terms of voter apathy and voter turnout, we have around 90% registration levels but only around 50% turnout so there is a mismatch there. It’s quite hard to plot who is voting so we’ve done a lot on getting people to understand how they can engage and influence and then trying to encourage them to register.

There is a distinction between the political and the operational side of a council and you’re potentially touching on politics when you talk about getting people to vote. There are a variety of reasons that people don’t vote – some people don’t feel it makes a difference and some think all the parties are the same.

Authorities have a responsibility to promote democracy but I believe the Localism Act has made some councils question their commitment to it, especially when it comes to money.

Engaging young people in local democracy

Councillor Mair Manuel, executive member for performance and procedures at North Devon council

We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get young people involved in the council so that they understand what it does but also so that the council can hear from them and pick up new ideas.

The council writes to the local schools and offers political speed dating to them. We’ve got six schools this year who want to take part. The youngsters are paired off with a councillor and have three minutes to ask them questions and listen to their answers.

At the end of three minutes they mark the councillor and then move on to the next table. It’s very much like normal speed dating – they keep swapping tables until we find out who comes out top and bottom.

This year we are looking at it slightly differently and thinking about a game based on the Million Pound Drop. We’re trying to think up the right questions for that at the minute.

We want to engage young people at a young age so that they realise they can talk to people in the council. We’ve had planning officers going out into the community with pupils to go through planning applications to see what needs to go in and why. They realise that there is a way to influence decisions and then have an understanding of the system itself.

The local MP and some councillors do help students to understand how the voting process works. But young people aren’t the most disengaged voters. When we open the ballot boxes you know that box A comes from area A and you know there won’t be many votes in there, we already know which areas we can expect low turnout from.

Involving businesses in local democracy

Councillor Kevin Paul Bentley, cabinet member for economic growth at Essex council

We visit lots of businesses in the area to speak to people who run companies and employees about their concerns, what their plans are for expansion and how they’re coping with the downturn. This is fed into the Greater Essex Business board. Companies are invited to discuss issues that affect them, particularly around planning.The aim is to find out how business people feel about the county and what people want to achieve.

There are lots of ways of engaging people; surveys can be hit and miss depending on if people have time to fill them in and sometimes you don’t get a full picture that way. It’s better to have face to face meetings and I always find that even though they are busy, people are keen to show off their business and are proud of them.

We want to share in that pride because all businesses in Essex are important for the county and for growth. People are working very hard to keep their heads above water and keep the economy going.

We do find that there is an appetite to engage; no-one has ever told us we couldn’t come to visit. We all live in the borough and so we’re very much part of the community and live and work here. Businesses are very keen to see what the county has a view on and how we see things going, so we’re lucky that we can rub shoulders with ministers and national politicians. I think it’s important for the economy of the UK generally to feed those views in nationally. People need to feel that the council isn’t something done to them, but something done for them and that we’re there to help in any way we can.

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