One feature of the first six years of this Government was declining turnout in local elections. Throughout the 1980â€™s, and the first half of the 1990â€™s turnout in local elections regularly exceeded 40%, historically, a high figure. After 1997, it declined steadily, reaching a low of 28% in 2000. In one by-election that year, in Liverpool, it even fell as low as 6%. This was mirrored in the General Election of 2001, when turnout reached 59%, the lowest figure since 1918.
This has concerned the Government, which believes the legitimacy of local elections is compromised by low turnouts. It has encouraged all sorts of pilot schemes to try and boost turnout. Local councils have experimented with methods such as internet voting, text message voting, or polling booths in supermarkets, while the Government has made it much easier to vote by post. None of these methods, it must be said, have had much success in boosting turnout. The one method which has been successful is compulsory postal voting. However, this has proved controversial, given well-publicised cases of fraudulent postal voting. It is arguable whether low turnout undermines the legitimacy of local government; it is beyond dispute that fraud does so.
2004 saw a rise in local election turnout to 42%, a very good figure. In part this was down to the introduction of compulsory postal voting in parts of the country. However, those parts of the country which used traditional voting methods also saw turnout rise. The reason for this was that the local elections were held on the same day as the European elections. The level of interest generated by parties such as UKIP drew people to the polls who would not usually vote in local elections. This year, turnout was also at a comparatively high level, 37%, despite the fact that no local authority, as far as I am aware, experimented with compulsory postal voting. The reasons for this seem clear to me. Firstly, politics is competitive again. For the first time since the early 1990s, Labour looks as though it can be beaten. That has generated more interest in elections generally. Both anti-Labour voters, and Labour supporters, who have not been terribly interested in local elections over the past few years, came out to vote. A good example of this was in the ward I contested in Brent, Fryent. My vote was up by 375 on the Conservative vote four years, previously, but the Labour vote was also up by 350. Secondly, minor parties are now motivating people to come out and vote, both for and against them. This is seen most strikingly in contests involving the British National Party. In Barking and Dagenham for example, turnout rose from 23% in 2002, to 39% in May, due to the fact that the BNP were contesting seats there for the first time.
Last night saw just two by-election results:-
East Staffordshire BC – Town: C 664, Lab 255, Ukip 104. Con hold. This represents a strong swing to the Conservatives from Labour .
Tonbridge and Malling BC – Ightham: C 352, Lib Dem 301. Con hold. This is a near loss to the Liberal Democrats in what was a very safe Conservative seat.
Sean Fear is a London Conservative activist and writes a weekly column for politicalbetting.com.