Whatever the ‘spin’ put by the political parties on the 2016 local council elections for England, the news is not good for either main party. But it is even worse for those who value a vigorous democracy.
The main parties suffered some losses. The Conservatives had small losses (though the London mayorship, a big loss, is expected) and have little to celebrate, and Labour, with somewhat bigger losses, even less.
In a healthy democracy things should be different. The Opposition should be making big gains at this stage in the electoral cycle. One year after its second general election defeat, Labour should have had time to recover, win support for its alternative view of the future, attract electorate-wide support – and be helped by a government suffering in the polls from the painful, but necessary measures needed to meet its longer term goals. That picture, however, does not fit the Conservatives for many voters. Rather they see a government keen to keep on board the disaffected, too hesitant on the tough decisions needed at home, too pusillanimous about those needed for abroad. The result was a tired one, a wearied electorate unfired, unenthused by the stalemate they reinforced in the ballot boxes.
Yet in the London Assembly and Mayoral election, at least, they had the chance to vote for something new. No one can accuse Zac Goldsmith of being just another Boris, nor Sadiq Khan of being like either. But many voters in Barnet who turned up when the polls opened were prevented from voting, because the polling stations had been given the wrong registers – an error not put right until mid-morning. The Electoral Commission explained: ‘Barnet has apologised for its error and the matter was resolved quite quickly’. The early press reports had focussed on the possible consequences if the vote were a close one and thousands of voters had been disenfranchised. But like the ‘apology’ from the council and the Commission, that missed the point about voting. Voting itself matters, not just the result: it is something important for every voter, even those backing an unpopular candidate or cause.
Most people understand that the very act of voting, of being involved in the process of choosing the government – and of removing failing governments – lies at the core of democracy. A vote has the same value whether it is in a marginal seat or in one that has always been held by the same party and by a large majority. If one voter is denied the chance to vote it poses a direct challenge to the values of democracy.
It may well be that this truth has escaped the officials, the press and the major political parties. But it has not escaped the voters themselves. The one party south of the border that can celebrate yesterday’s results is UKIP, increasing the number of 2016 councillors almost threefold (at the time of writing) from that in the corresponding elections (in 2012). Central to UKIP’s policies is its rejection of the EU because it is anti-democratic: because the big decisions are taken, not by elected parliaments, but by the Council of Ministers and the Commission. If yesterday’s elections show that more voters are becoming concerned about this disenfranchisement – less absolute but more menacing than the Barnet debacle – then that is bad news for the both the remainder-dominated government and the even more firmly remainder opposition.