Article - Local Elections

As I write this column, votes are still being counted for the local elections. 

We in West Dorset were not amongst those called upon to vote. But there are two bets I am willing to make.

The first is that, in almost all parts of the country where elections have taken place, the proportion of the electorate coming out to vote (including all those who have voted by post) will have been low. 

The other prediction I am willing to make is that almost all of the council seats will have been won by representatives of one of the national political parties. 

Time was when most council seats in many parts of the country were held by independent councillors who were not seeking to label themselves with any party political badge and who sought election on the basis of their fitnes as people to provide leadership in the interest of the local community. But this pattern - which used, indeed, to obtain long ago in West Dorset, is now a thing of the past. We still have many parish councils in which party politics does not get a mention. But all the larger councils are now dominated by the representatives of the national parties. 

I am tempted to believe that these two phenomena - low turnouts except in major mayoral elections, and the dominance of national parties in local government - are related. The loyal adherents of particular national parties turn up at the polls to support their parties as part of giving those parties the strength nationally that will enable them over time to form governments of the country as a whole and to influence legislation in parliament. Other people (or at least very many of them) stay home and do not even bother to fill in a local postal voting form because they don't have any particular view about which particular political party should be controlling the local government of their area. 

The reason, I think, that some of the mayoral contests break the mould and produce high turnouts is that many electors in major cities become generally interested in the question of which individual human being will make the best mayor and come out to vote for or against particular individuals, often without terribly much regard for national party political allegiances. 

Alas, I don't see any way of turning the clock back to a time when party politics  was largely left out of local government. In a vibrant democracy, you can't prevent political parties organising themselves to take control of local governments - and as soon as one party does do, the others are more or less compelled to follow suit. 

But I do think that the trend towards well known mayors, often seeking election more on the basis of their particular visions for their own communities than on the basis of national party programs, is to be welcomed and offers the prospect of a gradual and progressive increase in the level of interest that people take in the government of their locality and hence in their propensity to vote.