Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Apathy Party

The media have an uncanny and unerring ability to overlook the main story. The local election results were analysed at length by pundits, commentators and anorak psephologists. What was the story they all missed? The victory of the Apathy Party. Just over 30% bothered to vote in the English local elections and in Scotland only a shade over 50% turned out to elect MSPs.

Councils still have influence over local education policy, although Academies are answerable to self-appointed sponsors. Maybe that is part of the clue. After decades of centralisation and rate capping local councils have been shorn of any real power. The housing stock has been sold off, care of the elderly is in private hands and most other services (parks, refuse collection, street cleaning) are auctioned out to the lowest bidder. One Conservative politician said his ideal council would have one meeting a year with two items on the agenda – 1. Which companies would run the services. 2. The date of next year’s meeting.

Local democracy is not so much withering on the vine as lying on the ground like a shrivelled, desiccated stump. The average age of councillors is over 55 and has become a hobby for the retired.

In over 500 seats there wasn’t even a contest councillors were returned unopposed. Labour is not represented at all on over 80 councils and the Conservatives still failed to win seats on Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool councils. Only about 5% of 18 – 24 year olds vote in local elections.

In Robert Puttnam’s book ‘Bowling Alone’ he charts the lack of participation in America not only in voting but other forms of civic democracy – PTAs, trade unions, writing to newspapers. Once people fall into the habit of non-involvement it is difficult to re-engage them.

The Apathy Party may be an unfair jibe, on occasions I’ve consciously refused to vote because there was so little ideological difference between the candidates of the three main parties.

During the 1950s over 80% of people voted in General Elections, now we struggle to crawl over the 50% mark. Still as the anarchists used to say, ‘if voting ever changed anything they’d ban it!’


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