This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Election turnout is dropping like a stone!

Today is the day after the day after the local elections. I just googled ‘turnout news’ and a whole bunch of stories came up. Here are just three:
I wondered if there was a national trend similar to what happened here in Buckinghamshire. It would seem there was. Here is my local county council elections the turnout was 30.3%. Four years ago it was 40.1%.

That is a drop of 10 points! 25% fewer people voted. I think that is significant. Really significant.

Up and down the country, there are many thousands of local and national politicians & activists (of all hues) getting on with getting on: using their spare time to help make their communities good places to live. Most of this work is unsung, often tedious and, I would argue, part of the real fabric of British society. Long may it continue.

But what is happening when in the course of just a few years, the numbers of people bothering to vote has gone down from 4 to 3 in 10? I know there is a long term trend downwards in voting numbers, but this drop seems to be a real step change. It coincides, of course, with the (irresistible?) rise of UKIP who appear to have cornered the “ordinary bloke down the pub who is fed up with all these fancy politicians feathering their own nest” section of the electorate.

This is a real challenge for politicians both local and national. It is not often I say this but I think Dan Hannen is partly right when he said in his blog last night:
UKIP is a reaction to the lack of authenticity amongst the smug, politics-as-usual elite who rule Westminster. If UKIP are the insurgency, we need a counter insurgency. Attacking UKIP as clowns, or sneering because their fiscal plans might not add up, will not do
So we have a challenge. Just how should ‘main stream’ politicians and activists react? The short answer to that is I am not sure. It is difficult, especially when some politicians still seem to insist upon doing things that play into the hands of the cynics. (Sub editors the length and breadth of this country just love the “another politician messes up” or “here’s another politician with their snout in the trough” stories. They make such good copy.)

But I think part of the solution happened here in Buckingham on Thursday. Against most national trends, a Labour county councillor was elected. Robin Stuchbury is going to be the only Labour councillor in Buckinghamshire. This feat was noted by Tom Watson, the Labour Party’s national campaign coordinator when he wrote last night:
Let’s be honest, we were never going to take control of many of the County Councils holding elections. So step forward Robin Stuchbury – the first Labour councillor elected in Buckinghamshire since 2005. I’ve never met you Robin but I could have kissed you this afternoon.
I am proud to say that Robin is a good friend and political colleague of mine. As party agent, I coordinated his and all the other campaigns in the Buckingham constituency area. We worked hard and shrewdly, and Robin was elected. His success, however, comes down to years of good local political work by him, the fact that he always speaks his mind and that he is (and is seen to be) completely loyal to the people of Buckingham. Robin became a town councillor in 1999 and fourteen years later, Buckingham rewarded him by choosing him to be their county councillor. I met one woman in the street a couple of nights ago who said to me
I am a right wing Conservative, but Robin has my vote because he has done more for this town than anyone else
That is a local politics. And let’s be clear, Robin does not hide his political colours behind a mask of independence (and nor do any of the other 7 Labour town councillors in Buckingham). He just works hard and people know it. He is a ‘Ronseal’ local councillor…

This is not the whole answer to the problem of declining electoral turnout (digital voting would be a start too), but I think we need many more honest, hardworking mavericks like Robin.

There are many already, but we need even more!


  1. Good piece on why Robin Stuchbury was elected by the people of Bucks.Another nail in the coffin of national papers who refuse to cover such local news. Thanks.

    1. Thank you. I do hope the nationals pick up on the nationwide problem of plummeting turnouts though!

  2. Ed Grimsdale4/5/13 09:20

    You make some good points re falling turnout, Jon, but I don’t accept all of your arguments. A time there was when postal voting was presented as the great panacea, the instant cure for falling turnouts. We fell for it: hook line and SINKER. It has been costly, has been adopted by up to 20% of the electorate but the decline in turnout has remained, and been exacerbated. Its real effect has been a pernicious one: to down-grade the importance of Polling Day and to insulate those voting from the issues. It has made it easier for the committed to vote, but not added, significantly to their number. Debate – as with the recent analysis of UKIP’s flaws, sharpens as Polling Day approaches, but for postal voters the die has been cast, already!
    Digital voting will increase accessibility, should restore the primacy of Polling Day, should be more efficient, should make voters’ decisions more powerful (cheap as chips referenda?) and should be adopted quickly, but don’t expect an upswing in turnout, Jon.
    Increasing accessibility does not, by necessity, increase the popularity of an activity. Choosing between 50 Shades of Grey is less enticing than opting from a limited palette of primary colours. Hence the appeal of Farage and Stuchbury, chalk and cheese, Man at the 19th hole and Labour-er. Hard-work, honesty, straight-talking, whether from the right or left appeals, certainly when voting at local level. Here, in Buckingham, we’ve grown tired of those who have said one thing to our faces in Buckingham, and voted another thing (or sat on their “interested” hands) in Aylesbury. Ed Grimsdale

    1. Thanks Ed - I don't think we disagree on much here: postal voting has its place but it is not a panacea. Nor indeed is digital voting. Making voting easier through use of multiple channels will help, but the decline is down to many more factors, as you point out: not least the integrity of those elected to political office.

      I happen to be in favour of electoral reform since I think that is one of the factors too. Equally it seems to me that young people are not getting enough education / inspiration about all this stuff and are fed too narrow a diet of 'facts' and 'skills' (getting narrower as we speak c/o Michael Gove) - and not enough on ethics, politics, society and change.

      It is complex. All I know is that one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We seem to be doing that while watching voting turnouts plummet.