How do we reverse the collapse in voter turn-out over the past
sixty years? How about we massively extend the funding and public service remit
of the BBC?
The public’s mistrust of our politics is a
problem that parties of all persuasions should be worried about. It is often
said that it is the political games of a distant Whitehall, so removed from the
ordinary lives of real people that are to blame for General Election turnout
falling from 83.9% in 1950 to 65.1% in 2010.
Such hand wringing is usually followed by
calls for a more decentralised version of the state, handing power back to the
people and giving them a greater say in our democracy. In principle I agree
with this, the public however are lukewarm to the idea. 2010 local election
turn-out stood at around 32% and the introduction of Police Commissioner
Elections is predicted to result in a turn-out of just 18% - less than one in
five are saying they plan to vote.
Maybe my cynicism is misplaced and the public
will warm to the idea of Police Commissioners (though I’d still suggest
November probably isn’t the best time to hold an election) and some of the
problems with local government are well documented. There certainly isn’t a
silver bullet that can re-engage the electorate and those proposing decentralisation
as a cure-all need to engage on a wide variety of fronts and not see the aim of
driving power down as an end in itself. Further reform must be matched with
deepening engagement or it simply isn’t worth doing.
One issue that can address turn-out and help
foster engagement is the chronic lack of accountability that currently infests
local branches of Government. It saddens me that, and I say this as a Labour Party member, if you
were elected as a Labour Council in 2010 than it almost doesn’t matter how bad
you are or how many awful decisions you make as there is a 90% chance you will
remain a Labour council until there is a change in Government.
The refrain “send a message to the Government”
remains the catch-all slogan that our parties use to fire up their base and
gain control of Town Halls while remaining in opposition in Westminster.
However, Councils make decisions every day and sometimes those decisions are
bad ones and they need to be exposed and shown to the public so they can make
an educated decision at local election time.
Local newspapers, historically the place to
inform you about local decision making, are seeing 10% year-on-year decreases
in circulation. Steadily rising online readership is not making up for the loss
in revenue and, consequently, dailies have become weeklies, journalists have
been laid off and regurgitated press releases and human interest stories now
take precedence over local scrutiny. It was hoped that the birth of widespread
internet usage and the power of the blogger could fill the gap but, with
honourable exceptions, that is still yet to happen.
So what can Whitehall do to fill the gap? We
have in this country a public service broadcaster which is trusted by the
public and a well-used source of information. Why not empower the BBC to
provide more locally focused news? Adding locally relevant stories to the news
homepage based on your location could overnight increase the amount of local
news coverage the average internet users receives on a daily basis. The BBC’s
unique public service remit and heavily regulated impartiality make it the
ideal platform, the public could even learn the name of their local Councillors
once more and respond to the decisions that they are taking on their behalf.
This could also give the local-news
blogosphere the jump-start it needs as a flowering of locally based content
would no doubt also prompt competition from others keen not to toe the BBC
line. Social media sites like twitter and Facebook would also see the news
spread beyond those who just engage with the BBC.
Ok, so a suggestion to increase the level of
funding for the BBC is probably not an election winner, especially in times of
austerity, but then again neither is spending millions on making our police
electable. Driving power away from Whitehall has only succeeded in making the
public even less aware of what politics can and should be doing, it’s time to
make all our politicians accountable.
This article has been published in the ResPublica Fringe magazine, a collection of articles and essays from our party conference partners.
from the Fabian Society will be speaking at ‘Is the Party over? Reconnecting people and politics’, a
ResPublica public fringe series co-hosted with the Fabian Society and
CentreForum at Liberal Democrat Party conference: Saturday 22nd
September, 8.15pm – 9.30pm, the Grand Hotel, Brighton; Labour Party conference:
Sunday 30thSeptember, 12.45pm – 2.00pm, Manchester Town Hall and Conservative
Party conference: Tuesday 9th October, 10.30am – 11.45am, the
ResPublica Marquee, the ICC Birmingham (secure zone).