Published on May 24, 2012

Elections, but no democracy

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

This post is drawn from involve’s newsletter. You can sign up to the newsletter on the homepage. 

The past few months have been a fun, interesting and exciting time for us at Involve – taking over the Sciencewise programme, as Simon has written about, but also supporting three very different projects in the Creative Councils programme, holding a series of webinars on community engagement and co-hosting a seminar with Consumer Focus exploring the challenges and opportunities for localism and co-production in the coming years.

Through these projects I have been lucky enough to learn about and be involved in some exciting projects led by some very committed people in communities around the country. But while my optimism has been fuelled over the past few months by these people and projects, the recent round of local elections left me feeling pessimistic about local democracy.

Local elections should be an opportunity to celebrate local democracy, as we get the chance to have our say, select our representatives and give them a mandate to shape our local areas. But theelections only appeared to reveal the contempt with which local democracy is held by national politicians and commentators on the one hand, and citizens on the other.

Firstly, politicians and commentators once again reduced the local elections to a glorified opinion poll on national issues. With media coverage so dominated by discussions of what the results meant for Dave, Nick and Ed, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the results will actually have an important impact on our local communities. And, judging by the almost unidirectional swing in votes across the country, it appears many of us have forgotten.

Secondly, voter turnout was again low at around a one third of the electorate. This is not a new phenomenon, but the evidence suggests that our disengagement from politics is only increasing. The Hansard Society recently launched its ninth Audit of Political Engagement which found that interest in politics, propensity to vote, satisfaction with the system of governing and frequency of discussing politics, contacting an elected representative and signing a petition were all at their lowest levels since the Audit began in 2004. According to the authors, the indifference to politics from previous years has ‘hardened into something more serious’: people are ‘disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged’.

Worryingly, it seems that the worse we perceive our politicians to be, the less we want to be involved in selecting who will represent us – and the less willing we are to put themselves forward to do the job ourselves.

Gandhi, in response to a journalist who asked him about “western civilization”,  famously replied that he thought “it would be a good idea”. This has all left me feeling the same about local democracy. But, because I’m an optimist at heart, I’ve been searching for silver linings in what appears to be a grey cloud hanging over local democracy. Here is one for starters:

Now, more than ever, the pressure must be on local councillors to lead the charge for more participatory governance and be truly embedded within their communities if they are to hope to hold any legitimacy and see through the next swing in votes.

There are of course some excellent local councillors who have always understood themselves to be the guardians and facilitators, not embodiment, ofdemocracy and people power, but for those who have not seen this up to now – and still believe thatdemocracy begins and ends at the ballot box – it is perhaps time for some serious questions to be asked of their mandate.

What are your thoughts on the state of localdemocracy? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

Image credit: helenogbourn

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