What are we to make of the dismal turnout?
The November 2012 elections were meant to go down in history as the start of a brave new era of direct democracy. They will go down in history but not for that reason. The May referendums put the first dent in the plan, when all the cities bar Bristol voted down the mayoral option. The second, and more significant, hit was delivered by the mass abstentions on Thursday.
While a low turnout had been anticipated – the initial Ladbrokes betting market was on whether it would be under or over 17.5%, with equal odds for both – it’s still a desperately poor day for politics when only about one in seven choose to cast a ballot paper.
There are explanations, principally the lack of information about who the candidates were and what they stood for, and what the elections were about. The time of year didn’t help either but there’s more to it than that. The turnout was symptomatic of a deep disengagement between the public and the political class.
It wasn’t just the PCC elections that were blighted by low turnouts: one of the three parliamentary by-elections had the worst turnout since WWII and another saw just one in four vote.
While these were both safe Labour seats, they are way down on equivalent by-elections in the 1992-7 parliament – the last time Labour was in opposition – and so not a ringing endorsement. For example, the 1996 Hemsworth by-election had a turnout of nearly 40% and the 1995 Islwyn by-election saw more than 45% vote. Both were held in February so the weather and darkness will have been similar to if not worse than this week.
The reality is that the elections were not good for any of the three main parties. Labour probably have most to shout about with the two parliamentary holds and the gain in Corby but the swing there was respectable rather than spectacular, particularly given the unforced nature of the election. On the other hand, Labour failed to win the Bristol mayorality and finished with fewer PCCs than the Conservatives.
The Conservatives can be reasonably pleased to have won more PCCs than anyone else, though the turnout takes the edge off that, and to have escaped embarrassment in Corby or Cardiff (though not Manchester Central, where the Tories won the support of less than 1% of the electorate). That’s more than can be said for their coalition partners, who not only failed to finish in the top two in any PCC election but were fourth or worse in all but three of the 24 contests in which they stood.
Apart from the Can’t Be Bothered Party, the big winners were the minor parties and independents. Despite the lack of a mailshot or in many cases a volunteer base, these won enough of the PCC posts for it to be possible to travel from Dover to Holyhead entirely in Independent PCC areas, and very few candidates lost their deposit. An independent will also become the Bristol mayor, and UKIP performed strongly both in Corby and the PCC elections.
It’s clear that a great many people are turned off politics altogether but even more are turned off by the mainstream political parties, the senior members of which have far more in common with each other than they do with the man or woman in the street. The November elections were undoubtedly a vote of no confidence in both government parties; however, they were far from a vote of confidence in Labour either. The next general election remains very much open to the first party which can successfully engage the public.
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