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Mayoral elections: watch for turnout

Posted on 03 May 2012 .
Tags: society

Having just dashed off to the voting booth before work, like many fellow Londoners I’m wondering whether the mayoral outcome will be Boris or Ken; whether the smaller parties and independents will make an impression; and as an increasingly theoretical cyclist, whether the active cycling social media lobby will have influenced its constituency. Good questions, but I reckon we should be equally interested in turnout:  that bellwether of the health of our democracy. An upward blip in the last general election aside, national turnout has, after all, been on the long term slide. And remember that only one third of Londoners bothered to vote in the original 1998 referendum on whether there should be an elected mayor. It’s entirely possible that in actually voting, I’ll be in a minority in London: the London mayoral turnout trend has bucked the national trend and been rising, but even so, under one half turned out in 2008 (45%).

And the public – in findings released from British Social Attitudes – is not entirely persuaded about the point of an elected mayor. (Thanks to the Nuffield Foundation for funding the module and John Curtice and Ben Seyd for their analysis). True, six in ten believe an elected mayor means that someone can speak up for the whole area. But efficacy? Forget it. Only one third think it actually makes it any easier to get things done. Having said that, those living in inner London buck the trend: around one half do agree that an elected mayor makes easier to get things done, perhaps conscious of the highly visible Boris bikes, introduction of the congestion zone and so on.   Those living in outer London are less convinced though.

If you’re someone bothered about the democratic deficit and lack of trust in politicians, there’s still a very long way to go.  One of the real problems is that it’s people with the lowest trust in politicians who really aren’t persuaded by the power of mayors. They want much more direct powers: to be able to force errant MPs to be recalled, to have referendums on issues such as council tax increases, and to be able to force votes on issues of local concern.   In other words, alienated as they are from traditional representative democracy, they want more people power.

So whoever wins in London today, and indeed in any of the council elections around Britain today, it’s important that local politicians don’t just get seduced by winning. They need to judge and respond to the level of turnout too.
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