Local democracy in Scotland 2
Saturday for the
referendum poll? Not if
there's football on
There has been much hand-wringing about the low turnout at the recent local elections. This is, no doubt, regrettable, but there is nothing new about it. Admittedly, the turnout at UK general elections has been significantly better – between 1945 and 1997, it was between 71% and 84%.
Only in two elections, in 1950 and 1951, however, did the turnout surpass that in France – 81% – in the second round of recent presidential elections in May 2012. But otherwise turnout in Britain tended to be around 75%. After 1997, it was downhill: 59.4% in 2001, 61.4% in 2005, the years of New Labour, and a slight revival to 65.1% in 2010, during a financial crisis. In Scotland, the figures were slightly lower, at 58.2%, 60.8% and 63.8% in the last three general elections. The turnout for the election to the Scottish Parliament in 2011 was around 50%. The SNP's 'landslide' amounted to winning 45% of the votes of about half of the electorate.
When local elections were held on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament, turnout was higher than when they were the only elections taking place. This suggests that many Scottish electors stir themselves to go to a polling station only if there is something more interesting to vote for than the local council. The last time local elections were held on a date when no other elections were taking place, in 1995, the turnout in Scotland was 45%. Kenneth Roy's 'intelligent guess' for the 2012 turnout is 40%. The figure seems to have been nearer 38%. Is a drop of 7% catastrophic? Not, I think, enough to deserve the plethora of scaremongering articles about 'Fears over record low turnout at Scottish polls'.
As Allan McConnell puts it, 'Voters tend to "talk a good game" in terms of the worth of local elections, but are not so good at putting this into practice'. He quotes an American view that the electorate has a strong view about what is and is not right, and that non-voters have a role as democratic watchdogs – that is, while they stay at home when they are broadly content with local conditions, they will turn out in force if there is deep and widespread discontent with them.
It was no surprise that the transport convener, Gordon Mackenzie, who
had presided over the trams shambles, lost his seat, nor that council leader Jenny Dawe was rejected by the voters.
So what happened this May in Edinburgh, where fury about the trams project is widespread? Did people turn out in droves to vote, or did they shrug and reckon that there was nothing that they could do about it? The shruggers prevailed. But those who did vote (predictably) punished the Liberal Democrats, the leading force in the council and the force that was behind the council's persistence in continuing with the trams project even as it was curtailed and overshot its original and revised budgets. Paradoxically, one party that did well in Edinburgh was the Greens, a party that has given strong support to the trams project.
Some of us predicted that the Lib Dems would be wiped out in Edinburgh. A reduction from 16 to three councillors pretty much deserves the term 'wipeout'. It does not deserve the description 'decimate': it did far more than decimate, because to decimate means to destroy only one in 10, however much people bandy it about to mean 'utter destruction'. It was no surprise that the transport convener, Gordon Mackenzie, who had presided over the trams shambles, lost his seat, nor that council leader Jenny Dawe was rejected by the voters. Ms Dawe appeared to be in denial, saying that the trams issue was not a major factor in her and her party's defeat, but rather that the cause was people's dislike of Nick Clegg.
That doesn't really wash. The non-voting majority of electors in Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole clearly felt that the causes of the discontent, anxiety and, in some cases, anger that they feel when they contemplate the current state of affairs would not be addressed by any change in local government. The $64,000 question is: how many of that majority will be galvanised into voting on a particular day in autumn 2014? Thursday may not seem an ideal day of the week for a poll, especially with late-night shopping, but those who are suggesting a Saturday instead might think of checking the dates of the football season.
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh