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It’s not the people who are broken

The ‘political class’ has got to give up on its lazy recourse of blaming ‘apathy’ for low turnout. People turn out when they think they can make a difference. In most communities they know they can’t. So blame the system, not the people.

On the upside, at least no-one can now seriously claim that there isn’t a problem with local democracy in Scotland. On the downside, too many commentators seem to be willing to put the blame not on democracy but on voters, or worse still they see a problem and diagnose it 180 degrees the wrong way round. First, I would urge anyone who thinks to make the claim that Scotland is ‘over-governed’ to go and do some reading (our report The Silent Crisis would be a good starting point) and give themselves a serious shake. Below the national level, in any indicator you care to choose, Scotland is the least ‘governed’ country certainly in the EU and possibly in the developed world. To claim otherwise shows only ignorance. Likewise, those who have claimed that our local authorities aren’t big enough demonstrate the same ignorance. Scotland has tiny levels of local democracy and absolutely giant local authorities. Just a a quick reminder, the average population size of a local council in the EU is 5,630 people while the average size of a Scottish local authority is 163.200. And if you look at countries like France, Germany, Finland and Austria they all have a ratio of councillors to electors of between 1:125 and 1:500. In Scotland that ratio is 1:4,270.

So while we wait for all the results to come in, let’s have a look at the three claims that seem to be running around today on why people are voting in low proportions.

Firstly, there is the argument that somehow this is the result of too many politicians. I am tempted to dismiss this with nothing more than a snort, but even setting aside that this is factually incorrect, it is worth poking at the theory here. Why would people be more likely to vote if there were fewer councils or fewer councillors? I will be honest that I just can’t grasp this theory. Is the idea that fewer councils would somehow be more powerful councils? That doesn’t stack up. In fact, it only seems to work if you tack onto these ever-bigger councils a window-dressing mayoral contest (they still call them mayors for some reason, even though mayors didn’t exist in Scotland where we called them provosts…). That is a non-sequiteur – there is no link between set-piece ‘mayoral’ contests and larger local authorities. This is just reverse-engineered dogma by people who don’t really like democracy (or so it seems to me).

Then there is the ‘apathy’ view – that people are simply turned off politics. But again, this doesn’t seem to produce a clear answer. Voters in other countries express disillusionment with their politicians too but they still come out and vote. And at a local level in particular people very clearly do care about their community issues as we have seen by the very many local campaigns to protect local schools and services etc. In fact, I’ve always found the apathy line to be awfully much like neoliberal economics – market failure is the consumer’s fault. And yet this doesn’t match the analytical framework of voting patterns which is very widely accepted to show that voting turnout is linked to ability to change things using your vote and the relative powers of the body you’re voting for. If a council can make a difference to you and you to it, you vote. So where indicators show distance and powerlessness you would expect to get low turnout – and you do. Apathy is something politicians and the political classes use to shift blame. The funny thing is that they aren’t to blame in the first place – the system is.

And the third reasoning I’ve heard today is the ‘they’re just not angry enough to come out’. That’s a variation on the Blair line that low turnout is a sign of satisfaction. I don’t think anyone really took that line seriously at the time so why it is being trotted out now is a mystery. This comment was made in the English context where the problem is worse still. We at least have a proportional voting system for local elections – in the rest of the UK there are many, many seats in which the decision is a foregone conclusion so voting doesn’t matter. How angry do you have to be to come out and vote when you already know it is useless? Likewise, since I know that my vote, my neighbour’s vote, my whole town’s vote will play a very minor part in determining the shape of my local council, what motivation is anger? Anger is expressed in positive forms like voting only when it has any chance of achieving something. Anger without an outlet becomes (among other things) alienation.

Today looks like it is not going to be as bad as some predicted. We’re only going to see a ten per cent drop in turnout. But since (barring the rest of the UK) we started in the worst position in Europe that isn’t much to say for ourselves. We have to stop blaming people for not voting and start blaming the system we have which gives them too little motivation to vote. Because it’s not the people that are broken. And yet the ‘analytical classes’ (people who live by talking about politics) are far too often ready to analyse out their own culpability. We have known for the best part of 15 years that something is wrong and yet not only have we done nothing about it, that analytical class has in many cases failed even to recognise the problem exists. And so it takes a default position of finding the faults in those most unfortunate and untidy elements of democracy – voters.

No more. There is a solution and anyone who has looked properly at the situation knows it. We need to restore local democracy in a meaningful way. And we need to stop blaming people.

Robin McAlpine