The importance of not being idle: The impact of voter apathy

By Andrew Cream

This year’s local elections, held on May 5, brought about widespread change across the country. Liberal Democrats were hit hardest, losing 747 councillors, while Labour gained control of an extra 26 councils.

However, some councils had even more notable stories than the substantial losses and gains that took place nationwide.

One such council was Bury. A former Conservative borough, Labour took control for the first time in five years, and they did so in dramatic fashion.

At about 3am on the night of the elections, results finally started to filter in from the 17 wards that make up Bury Council, but the Ramsbottom ward seemed to be holding up proceedings.

Long considered a safe Tory ward, it was tied after three recounts, with Labour’s Joanne Columbine and Conservatives’ Robert Hodkinson battling for a seat.

The night was adjourned at around 5am, and the next day, the two candidates came in and drew lots. Councillor Columbine drew the longest ‘straw’ and won the Ramsbottom seat, ultimately winning Labour overall control of Bury Council.

“My best imagined outcome was reducing the majority,” Councillor Columbine said. “I thought my chances were slim – this was a safe Tory seat with an untried and untested candidate.”

“A majority party, without overall control, has to align itself with partners to bring about its policy aims,” Councillor Columbine explained. “With overall control you can bring your own policies into play.

“Naturally any good administration still listens to the views of the opposition and works with them for the benefit of all the local residents.”

Two major points need to be highlighted after an election result like Bury’s. Firstly, it explicitly shows how important every vote is. People often complain their vote won’t make a difference, but it’s clear here, that one extra vote for either Labour or Conservatives in Ramsbottom would have completely reshaped the future of Bury Council.

Tim Pickstone, Liberal Democrat Councillor for Bury’s Holyrood Ward said: “There have only been a few times in electoral history when control of a council has been determined by the drawing of lots, in this case by the length of a straw.

“It just shows how important every single vote can be in an election.”

Roger Brown, Leader of Bury Council’s Conservatives, is doubtful whether Labour will consider other opinions.

He said: “As far as I am concerned the Labour Party will make all the decisions in private, and impose absolute discipline on Labour councillors to force through their policies.”

With such a close contest, it wouldn’t be foolish to think that this will encourage Bury’s citizens to vote in the future. But former Pirate Party candidate and current Liberal Democrat Graeme Lambert isn’t so positive.

He said: “The sad fact of it all is that the majority of the voters don’t care about politics anymore due to the lies and deceit we have witnessed in Parliament over the last few years.  

“The big parties have a long way to go in restoring public confidence in politicians before we see any change in turnout.”

Ashley Dé, Director of Communications at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Time and again voters are reminded that their votes don’t make a real difference to the result.  

“In any elections when the winner isn’t a dead cert, turnout is significantly higher. Where safe seats exist we see voters staying at home in droves awaiting the inevitable.

“It takes these rare occasions to show how important one vote can be. But it’s the exception rather than the rule.”

Councillor Columbine said even though the running of many local services is determined through local elections, the turnout is always below 45%, and sometimes much lower.

She added: “People need to get involved more and protect the day-to-day things that matter in the community.”

When addressing low turnouts, it’s interesting to look at what parties do to get people out on polling day.

Councillor Columbine explained that they identified local areas that traditionally support Labour, going door-to-door introducing themselves and handing out contact information.

She also said the heavy rain on the afternoon of polling day was a bad sign.

She joked: “I would like to think that without that downpour, we would have got a thumping majority for Labour here in Ramsbottom!”

Mr Lambert explained that the Pirate Party focused their attention on people who were unwilling to vote, and the data they collected showed that a lot of their votes came from those who weren’t intending to vote.

Councillor Pickstone however, believes that parties should be looking at tactics to get people to vote in general, regardless of the party.

He said: “If you look at who doesn’t vote its often younger people, often poorer people, often people who are just too busy with work or other commitments.

“We need to be asking ourselves why this is the case, and making sure what we do as local elected representatives reaches out to the whole population.”

The second point to be raised from the Bury local election is that this momentous result was ultimately decided by chance. Should there not be a more calculated way in deciding these important results?

Councillor Columbine said: “It does seem an odd way to make such a momentous decision doesn’t it?

“But after two counts ending in a dead heat, as long as all parties agree the decision has to be made.”

Mr Lambert is calling for a change in the way these decisions are reached. He said: “It is unfortunate that it came down to drawing straws, and I would like the Electoral Commission to look into finding an alternative method.”

Mr Dé thinks even more should be done to combat these incidents happening.

He said: “You can get ties in almost any system, but only the current system calls it a draw while at the same time as wasting most people’s votes.
“In 2007 Scotland changed the way it elects its councils to proportional representation, to ensure that every vote counts. English voters should be extended the same courtesy.”

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