As the old saying goes, nothing is certain, except death and taxes. If the fresh round of chaos brought on by the recent local elections is anything to go by, perhaps Labour infighting should be added to that list.
But, while the media understandably focussed on the political repercussions of Labour’s loss in Hartlepool, the real story of those elections lay elsewhere...voter apathy and the dangerous consequences of it.
Take the Police and Crime Commissioner elections as an example of how voter apathy may end up undermining one of our fundamental democratic rights.
They may not have a high public profile but Police and Crime Commissioners have an incredibly important job and a ton of responsibility. They are responsible for setting police budgets, hiring and firing chief constables, working with victims and the wider public to set out policing priorities, and holding police forces to account when things go wrong. They have real power and can make a real impact in the communities they serve, perhaps even more so than MPs.
Yet in 2012, the year they were introduced, turnout for PCC elections averaged just 15%. In 2016, that increased slightly to around 20%. Official figures for 2021 aren’t yet available, but informal reports suggest turnout this year won’t be too different to 2016. But, so what?
Well, this year, the Conservative party made significant gains, now holding 30 of the 39 Police and Crime Commissioner posts. That gives the party of government huge influence on policing throughout our country, despite up to 80% of the electorate not voting for it. This influence may be critical to decisions made on the ground if/when the government succeeds in passing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill), a bill that provides the police with new powers to ban peaceful protests.
So, why IS turnout so low? One theory might be that the electorate just don’t care about policing matters. But in the past year alone, we have seen Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism in policing, protests against the murder of Sarah Everard by an off duty police officer, and demonstrations against the PCSC Bill in communities around the UK, so that argument simply doesn’t hold water.
With the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, as with many other UK elections, evidence suggests that voters don’t turn out because, under our first past the post system, they don’t believe that their vote will make any difference. We can educate and inform the electorate all we want, and continue with efforts to boost voter turnout, but while people continue to feel that the electoral system prevents them from voting for the candidate they actually believe in, they will never see much point engaging with the democratic process.
It’s crucial that we address this disillusionment and, fortunately, we have an opportunity to do so. Our world is in a state of flux and, while it remains so, fundamental change is possible. This flux is driven by a whole series of revolutions...a digital revolution, a communications revolution, a green energy revolution, and others. It’s time we had a democratic revolution too.
Regardless of political leanings, everyone should have a voice in debates that determine the future of our country. Proportional representation would provide that voice, and, by ensuring that the true diversity of opinion in Britain is represented in Parliament, would make meaningful social change much more likely. When people can again see a direct link between voting in elections and getting stuff done, the days of 15% turnout will be over.
Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner’s post-reshuffle ice cream photo op may make for compelling viewing but our problems go much deeper than who is sitting on the Labour frontbench. While they work out where they want to go next, the rest of us should get on with the push for a democratic revolution that will sweep away ‘first past the post’ in favour of a properly democratic electoral system.