But can this possibly be right?
The supermarket controversy that raged in Ledbury two years ago showed a town fired up with passion about its High Street and the supposed availability of affordable shopping, the kind of town we aspire to. Meantime, cuts in public services, the closure of the public toilets, the role of the Town Council in supporting a jobs fair, have also provoked heated argument. A row is brewing right now as to whether the Market House should have a lift installed: some people are calling it a desecration, others arguing for accessibility rights. No, I don’t believe Ledbury is an apathetic community.
"Latest: Take the Ledbury Democracy survey: five minutes into why you did or didn't vote.
Click Here for the Link."
Good election turnouts matter because they are an indicator of a healthy, engaged society. Electoral participation is the main way that elected representatives are mandated to respond to the needs and concerns of voters. Without that connection, grievance, frustration and conflict begins to overtake rational debate and good decision-making.
In a rotten democracy where elective bodies are perceived as being unconcerned about the people and they, equally do not care what their representatives get up to, we see diminished and dysfunctional communities, where rumour, conspiracy theory and extremist thinking are rife.
As the Electoral Commission commented on the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the 15% turnout should be "a concern for everyone who cares about democracy".
Nor should the voters be blamed for not coming out to vote. It is the democratic institutions – the Council and the media - that are at fault. Says political commentator Richard Bassford, the responsibility lies with the elective institutions themselves, ‘to respond to and engage the electorate, providing opportunity for participation.’
Let’s start with some of the practical issues which contributed to the poor turnout in Ledbury this time. Elections in winter months attract an average 6.6% lower turnout than those in the summer. The decision of the Town Council not to send out polling cards, coupled with Herefordshire Council not writing to all voters publicising the vote meant that many people simply didn’t know the poll was happening. While out canvassing in the town centre on the Saturday before the vote, I estimate that at least three in four voters had no knowledge of the forthcoming by-election. More than that, comments posted on discussion forums suggested that a significant proportion of voters had no knowledge of the candidates or what they stood for. The poisonous icing on the election cake came with news that the main polling station at the Community Hall was not in use that day, causing further confusion and inconvenience.
The last poll in Ledbury in 2012 attracted a modest turnout of 25%. This election was significant because it came hot on the heels of the supermarket question, when tempers were still inflamed. It was also the first contested election in which a vote had taken place in Ledbury for at least twenty years, possibly longer. It was a summer poll. Herefordshire Council had mailed out advisory letters to all electors in the week preceding. Most of the seven candidates had campaigned with gusto in the run-up, producing leaflets, posters and knocking on doors, and well done to all of them. There was plenty of media coverage. It was a good result for local democracy.
This time, and I intend no political point scoring here, most of the people that had a responsibility to get the election message out, sat on their hands. It was not the voters who were apathetic, but the bodies and individuals actually involved in the election.
Absurdly little energy was invested in this democratic exercise. As was expected, no poll cards were issued by Ledbury Town Council, and Herefordshire Electoral Services declined to send letters to the town electorate as part of spending cutbacks. There was precious little media coverage – the key Ledbury Reporter did not even manage to publish a paragraph reminding voters of the upcoming poll in their Friday edition preceding the election on 27 February. On top of this, one of the candidates had produced no publicity literature by the final weekend, while the other contender put out a poster which gave no information about his policies or priorities.
Is it really a surprise that Ledbury’s 2014 by-election was such a damp squib?
By the way, do you remember the Town Council election in 2013? No? That's not a surprise for there was just one candidate who put his name forward and was therefore “elected” unopposed. The reason for this was that very few people knew the vacancy had arisen.
There is an urgent need to improve our communications with the electorate. Better electoral publicity and clear candidate information put right into people’s hands (and inboxes) has to be a top priority in the run-up to our next general town election in 2015.
More than this, Ledbury Town Council – just like the similarly electorally-challenged Police and Crime Commissioners, the EU Parliament and our own Herefordshire Council – has to connect more effectively with its communities.
The evidence is strong that people abstain from voting because they don’t believe that the exercise is worth investing effort in: what’s the point? You need to be motivated to do your civic duty, to find out about candidates, and then make the effort to go out and place your cross on the ballot paper. People have to believe that there is a benefit in participating in public life, whether as a voter, or better still putting yourself forward for election. Right now, many people do not - and that is our major challenge.
The health of our democracy lies squarely in the hands of the Council decision-makers and the local media. Voters are not a nuisance to be fobbed off with a shrug. Democracy is not a luxury. It costs money. Community engagement starts by listening to people. And then changing the way you do things.
Latest: Take the Ledbury Democracy survey: five minutes into why you did or didn't vote. Click Here for the Link.