…they’d make it illegal. Ha ha ha. Of course, they do make it illegal in the sorts of places where the powers that be really don’t want to have any change outside their control. Voting is part of changing things and also of registering the wish for things not to change either because they’re fine as they are or because the alternatives proposed aren’t very appealing.
Today most of England and Wales will be given the opportunity to vote for local councillors and assembly members, the mayor of their city (most notably in London), and whether they should have a directly elected mayor in a number of larger cities. It is up to you whether you want to vote on all or any of these matters where they are presented to you. But, one thing which they are not, is pointless.
That’s not just my general position as someone who is interested in and follows politics and current affairs. I do get annoyed by people who say they are not interested in politics and then go on to reel off a whole load of things that they care deeply about which are political. There is a difference between being as uninterested in the parties and politicians as I am in the X-Factor and declaring that you aren’t interested in politics or music. I can understand the frustration about national politicians who tend to disappoint if ever given the chance of governing. Sometimes that means that alternative ways of being heard are more attractive than pinning your hopes on the representative of a particular party in a General Election – hence the appeal of things like Occupy and 38 Degrees which give you the feeling of doing something and making a statement.
Local elections are different. Councillors do largely tedious things rather than the exciting big picture stuff that the leaders of the parties of government try to sell. They are the ones who can help to sort out bin collections, put in better signage to reduce local traffic problems or danger to pedestrians, improve local schools, take action on noisy neighbours or crime. They’re the politicians who are most likely to be able to make a difference and most likely to be responsible for many of the small things in the local environment which make life pleasant and which you only notice if they stop.
That’s why I can’t vote for any candidate for the Council who hasn’t bothered to canvass my street or even deliver any pamphlets. If they can’t do that, I can’t trust them to do much. So, even though this is probably a disciplinary offence, I can’t vote for the party of which I am a member in the current election.
It means that I will, if I can get back to Leeds in time, I will vote for the Lib Dem councillor, Jamie Matthews, who has worked hard during his time in the Council. I know him a little from my time as a fellow governor of my son’s primary school and know that he’s exactly the sort of person who will and has spent months or years badgering the local highways department to argue out the precise location and angle of traffic lights to ensure that the roads are as safe as they can be for children going to the school. Being a local resident also counts. It isn’t everything as it is possible to be representative and diligent without being entirely local, but it helps, particularly for things which would otherwise be abstract. Perhaps I’m particularly lacking in public spirit (typical Tory, eh?), but I’d find it a lot harder to get excited about the provision of brown bins for garden waste in Seacroft, over on the other side of the city, than in Headingley where I live or the wards which neighbour it.
Quite a lot of what the government has been doing and almost all of its presentation and tone in the course of doing it has been disappointing to say the least. I don’t want to replace people who have, despite their membership of a particular party in government, actually done their job well. So it was disappointing in the last local elections in Leeds that we lost another Lib Dem councillor, James Monaghan, who had, astonshingly, managed to persuade the highways department to replace all of the York Stone paving on my street which had been stolen over the previous years, mainly as a backlash against Lib Dem MPs’ reneging on their pre-election promises about university tuition fees which he had nothing to do with. The Labour councillor who replaced him seems a nice enough chap and is very willing to discuss things on twitter (particularly national issues), but hasn’t done anything noticeable for my area. He also is dead set against the idea of a directly elected mayor in Leeds, principally on the basis that “the wrong party” might win.
I will be voting for a directly elected mayor. I can bear that mayor being from a different party to one I support – even I voted for Ken Livingstone the first time he stood for mayor in London, not that I would were I to be living in London now. The great advantage of having a directly elected mayor is that it means that independent candidate have a chance of winning as well as encouraging the parties to view the city as a whole. There are wards in the city which are so true-blue Tory (a few) that they’ll barely be touched by opposition candidates as lost causes. There are also many which are equally safely Labour (nothing is safe about a Lib Dem area these days!) where the Tories barely bother. Yet, in each of these types of area there will be sizeable number of people who even in the clear knowledge that their vote won’t win their preferred candidate or party a councillor or MP, still vote for them.
Those areas are ones where supporters of the losers are unrepresented by council leaders elected by the councillors of the majority party. With an elected mayor, their votes will count and their interests will need to be represented more. It will also mean that there will be an interest for the incumbent party to work hard on getting their vote out even if they know they will win locally because of its impact on the city-wide election. Making votes valuable whether they are in “safe” or marginal areas should have the effect of encouraging candidates to fight harder and on local issues rather than national ones. The divergence of the split of votes in the London Mayoral elections from the local support for the parties on a national basis shows that, if the elections are taken seriously, this is not a fantasy.
Taking this to an extreme there might be a parallel argument for electing the Prime Minister in this way, but that sort of presidential system is a long way off mainstream thought! The level of detailed focus on policy and on reaching out way beyond ordinary party support that the French Presidential run-off debate last night seems to have had does suggest that there might be some merit in it though – not least because it provides a real glimpse at the extremes to which a leadership candidate is prepared to go. The formation of the Coalition here in 2010 would not have been such a surprise if we’d had the French presidential system!