Delusions of power as democracy goes to the dogs

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By Kenneth Roy

Since I have yet to see a reliable figure of voter turnout in last week’s local elections, I decided yesterday to begin the laborious task of working it out for myself. I didn’t get very far with this bank holiday assignment in the national interest.

The amount of information about the results of these elections on council websites varies enormously from comprehensive in such well-ordered authorities as Perth and Kinross (where the data is particularly easy on the eye) to non-existent.

By Kenneth Roy

Since I have yet to see a reliable figure of voter turnout in last week’s local elections, I decided yesterday to begin the laborious task of working it out for myself. I didn’t get very far with this bank holiday assignment in the national interest.

The amount of information about the results of these elections on council websites varies enormously from comprehensive in such well-ordered authorities as Perth and Kinross (where the data is particularly easy on the eye) to non-existent. You would think (or perhaps you wouldn’t) that since elections to these authorities take place only once every four years, reporting the outcome, including voter turnout, would be a priority for the organisers. Think again.

Last night, Falkirk Council was still declaring on its home page that the results would be posted ‘as soon as they are available’. They had been available since last Friday afternoon, but still no results. Let’s get this right. So there was no one in the whole of Falkirk Council who thought of recording the names of the elected representatives, and how many votes they received, and how many people voted, between Friday afternoon and Monday night? What does this say about the quality of local government in my native town?

Although I have been unable to arrive at a turnout figure, I am left with an intelligent guess that it was around 40%. As it happened, 40% was the figure in my own ward where, as I predicted last Thursday with all the confidence of the Daily Record’s former dog racing tipster, all three sitting councillors were re-elected. Having checked the website of the worst council in Scotland (South Ayrshire), I still don’t know how many votes were cast for any of these characters.

What I do know is that, from this ward, we managed to return a nationalist, a Tory and someone called Andy from the Labour Party. How convenient for all concerned. It is clear, if it was not clear before, why these tribunes failed to conduct a proper campaign. They knew it was a foregone conclusion. Everybody was a winner. Even the man for whom the voters thought so little that they relegated him to third place still has a seat on the council. In this crazy system he’s somehow a winner too. Nothing changes in South Ayrshire. Another unholy coalition will be cooked up, theatres will stay closed, town centres wrecked. The only conceivable alternative – Labour – decided it didn’t want to play, putting up only nine candidates for 30 seats.

Yet, despite this charade masquerading as local democracy, the Scottish Review’s plucky last-minute appeal for mass abstention in protest at a transparent racket seems to have been only partially successful. Four out of 10 electors in our ward dutifully legitimised the shabby process, a percentage not unadjacent to the turnout as a whole. The poll in Scotland may even have been better than it was in England, where the BBC was reporting average turnout of around 33%. The message of these elections on both sides of the border is that the electorate is deeply fed up with politics and politicians, though maybe less fed up here than elsewhere. But the politicians don’t want to discuss our apathy. It reflects too badly on themselves. It’s like a bad smell. Theirs.

The first minister, despite his chirpy public presentation of the SNP performance, cannot during his long nights of the soul, if he has any, believe that a 12% fall in his party’s share of the vote since high watermark in May 2011 was an altogether satisfactory result. The Old Firm of Scottish politics are now slugging it out each with a share of the popular vote of 32-33%. Impressive, not.

Actually, though, there is no such thing as the popular vote any more; only degrees of unpopularity. Since only half the electorate turned out in May 2011, and very much less than half in May 2012, the ‘popular’ support of each of these parties is extremely low; yet we continue to go along with the hilarious notion that this is the most happening little country in the world. A few thousand people – geeks, wonks, bloggers, and a committee called Iain Macwhirter – are terribly excited by it all. The majority, barely stirred, go straight to the sports pages or Ikea.

If, however, as I suggest, the apathy was less pronounced in Scotland than it was in England and Wales, I would be inclined to put it down to the Salmond factor. There is nothing in these results to suggest that Scotland has a charismatic figure leading his tribe to the promised land; we’ll leave that to the new owner of Rangers. But Mr Salmond does generate, if not excitement, a greater interest in politics than the posh boys of the Westminster coalition. He is less generally disliked than most politicians – which I intend as a compliment. Indeed he and the appalling Boris Johnson are now the dominant figures in British politics. I predict, with all the confidence of the Daily Record’s former dog racing tipster, that this pair will soon be running whatever show there is left to run on these islands.

Meanwhile, democracy will continue to go to the dogs. Though not in Falkirk, where the last corrupt fish supper was served to the last greyhound some years ago. But I see (at 9 o’clock on Tuesday morning as I write this) that the results of the elections in my native town are finally going on screen. Maybe I’ll get you that turnout figure yet.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review