Why low election turnouts are bad news for local journalism – and what could be done about it

In the early hours of Friday morning, Roseanna Wain was elected to Salford Council. Local Democracy Reporter Joseph Timan was there to see the result announced. But it’s the turnout figure which grabbed the headlines.

Just 10% of people eligible to vote in the Blackfriars and Trinity ward bothered to do so. 788 people. You may shrug and say ‘so what’ – after all, only a quarter of people in Salford found their way to the polls for the spring’s mayoral elections in Greater Manchester, meaning three-quarters felt having their say on a role which could potentially influence billions of pounds of public sector spending wasn’t worth their time.

It should worry us, both as journalists and, obviously as citizens. The citizen argument is relatively simple – the fewer people vote, the less accountable politicians become, the more likely it is rogue elected officials will begin trying to make public life work around their persona l priorities. Indeed, you could argue that’s exactly what happened in Westminster last week when the Conservatives led a botched attempt to rewrite parliamentary standard rules to suit their own world view. Thankfully, it failed – largely because the media ensured we all knew about it.

But it should also bother us as journalists. If just one in ten people can be bothered to cast a vote in local elections, can we really claim, as journalists, to have a mandate to hold the elected politician to account?

Who is going to march on Downing Street when the Freedom of Information Act is squashed? Who will sing protest songs on College Green when rights to report on meetings are rescinded? Who will fill the editor’s postbag with letters of support when a council decides to put pretty much every important council decision ‘below the line.’

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme – funded by the BBC and operated on a franchise model by publishers large and small – has 150+ journalists working across the country, providing a level of scrutiny many councils haven’t enjoyed for years. I say enjoy, rather than endured, because I remain convinced the vast majority of councillors believe they should be held to account and see us, as journalists, as an essential part of public life.

There are a few, though, who through their actions, clearly don’t. And the LDR scheme spotlight shines brightly on them too.

The Salford turnout might be headline-grabbingly low, but it’s only an extreme of an ongoing trend. Local elections have become muted affairs, often focusing on a few key wards in each council area as parties, short of volunteers and active members, have to manage their resources accordingly. Too often, they become a proxy for life in Westminster – a trend both politicians and the media could stop tomorrow.

It’s entirely possible to live in a ‘safe’ council ward and go through an entire election period without seeing a politician, and maybe only seeing those ‘insert name of place’ election leaflets which essentially the same in Redcar and Ramsbottom.

That’s ultimately bad for journalism. If you can’t be bothered to vote, are you really that fussed about what’s going on at the Town Hall? Isn’t it just easier to ‘blame the council’ as though it were some thing you have no influence over, ever, rather like the rain this morning or yet another Mrs Brown’s Boys repeat?

Digital journalism shines an intense spotlight on the popularity of local news. Harnessed well, that spotlight can be a powerful tool to support public interest journalism, and across the country, political journalists who set out to find ways for their work to reach the widest audience, and to have an impact, find success.

But to a certain extent, local journalism and local councillors find themselves aligned in a fight to save honest local public life. An empty echo chamber, with reporters talking to the one in ten and councillors realising the same, can only lead to bad things. It needs more than just reporting, it needs a rethink of the electoral system, one spearheaded by the politicians who believe public service should be scrutinised.

No, I’m not talking about compulsory voting. Mandating people to vote would only serve to create resentment. For local democracy, and local accountability to work, people need to opt in. To opt in, they need to be informed. To be informed, they need a system which makes information easy to find.

Here’s how I’d do it.

  1. At local election time, anyone who can garner more than 100 supporters, all elected voters in their ward, can stand. Those supporters cannot also be standing, or be serving politicians.
  2. The Government creates a Local Democracy Election fund, and every person who stands receives £500 to promote their message in their local ward. They can do so how they choose, but legally.
  3. Each candidate signs a Respectable Campaigning Contract, enforceable by law by the council, which requires them to respect the laws of libel and defamation, and also commits them to campaign in a way which does not break any law.
  4. Each candidate is required to produced to provide a 10-point election manifesto of what they would do for their ward if they won. Each point must be relevant to what can be changed or administered by the authority they are standing for.
  5. The Local Election Fund would also cover the publication of each candidate’s manifesto in local publications which can point to a meaningful local audience in the relevant area, and have a strong track record of covering councils. Local Returning Officers would administer this, and be accountable for ensuring the coverage reached the widest possible audience in print, and online. The funding available should reflect local population size, and the need to reach as many people as possible.
  6. Publishers engaging in publishing the manifestos would have to demonstrate how they would attract the largest voting audience possible. Involvement in the Manifesto publication should have no bearing on regular election coverage.

This could, in theory, cost millions – but what price a healthy public discourse? It’s just an idea, thought up after reading the Salford story, and there are probably better ideas out there. But we need something to turn the tide.

At the moment, the vast majority of councillors are in office with the right intentions. I’ve covered councils where the BNP has managed to sweep in. Thankfully, they were soon found out, but low turnout and low levels of civic engagement made it easy for them to win temporary friends and find themselves in public office.

Next time, it might not be so easy to save public life from the extremes. A 10% turnout shouldn’t prompt a sad shake of the head – it should prompt calls for action.

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