News pages will continue to be consumed over the bank holiday weekend by the fall out from the local elections. I’ll no doubt be asked to do some punditry, and I will make sure that this is in my former capacity, rather than my current one, and that my observations are as impartial as possible.
But I’d like to offer up a few observations now.
It’s not clear whether these elections are more analogous to the 2004 elections, from which Labour recovered, or to 1995 which marked the beginning of the end for the Conservatives.
I don’t perceive a fundamental shift in public priorities as was witness in 1995, but on the other hand the Conservatives are showing the kind of optimism and self confidence we haven’t witnessed since the early years of the Blair project.
But perhaps the most interesting result from yesterday was the turnout in the London mayoral election. By all accounts it is much higher than the previous election and this highlights three things.
1. Voters are more motivated by voting for people than parties
2. Having charismatic candidates helps fire up the public imagination
3. Voters are more likely to vote when they think the result is close so their vote matters.
In the wake of the disappointing turn out in 2001 much ink was spilt on the inexorable decline of public participation in the democratic process. In all the reports, conferences etc on how to engage people in politics post-2001 what wasn’t recognised is that modern people are both more sophisticated and less deferential than their predecessors, so they’re more likely to make rational choices about how and when to use their voting rights.
As I’ve said before, it’s not that people aren’t interested in collective action and collective decision making, just that the ways in which we seek to engage people needs to be more responsive and tailored to their new ways of thinking and living.
So of course there will be moaning about the lack of turn out in elections around the country, but how many races had the sex appeal and glamour of the London mayoral election – or for that matter could honestly say the results would as directly affect people’s lives? This backs up a recent IPPR report which says that if we want to have a more vibrant political debate there is a strong case for having mayors in all major UK cities in order to enable people to have a stake in local democracy.
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