Friday, April 13, 2012

Exeter Elections, May 2012 - the basics

There's an election?!
In Exeter on 3 May we have elections for the City Council. This blogpost is for those who haven't voted in a local election before, or who are new to Exeter.

"Why should I care?"

Well, Exeter has two councils: Devon County Council and Exeter City Council.

Among other things, Devon County Council looks after education, social services, transport, fire and police.

But the May elections are for the City Council, which makes decisions on planning applications, housing, car parks, waste collection, shops, parks, and anything that helps make Exeter an attractive place to live and work.

"Sounds worthy, but voting doesn't change anything"

My cats run the city
Perhaps. Often less than 40% of people vote. Sometimes it's less than a quarter.

If you don't vote, you're letting others choose councillors for you. Do you really want to let obsessives and crackpots choose the decision-makers?!

"OK. What's the choice?"

It depends what ward you are in. There are 18 wards in Exeter, but on 3 May only 14 wards have a councillor to elect:

Alphington, Exwick, Newtown, Pennsylvania, Pinhoe, Polsloe, Priory, St. David's, St. James, St. Leonard's, St. Loye's, St. Thomas, Topsham, and Whipton Barton

It'll be your turn next time Duryard, Cowick, Mincinglake, and Heavitree!

Each ward contains 5000-10,000 people. Each ward has two or three councillors. There are 40 councillors altogether. Only councillor in each ward is up for election on 3 May.

If you're not sure which ward you're in, enter your postcode on the Exeter City Council website, and it will tell you.

(There's also other useful information about your home at that website, such as dates of bin collections and street cleaning, your councillors, your polling station, nearby planning applications, a heat loss map, your council tax band, residents parking zones, your nearest GP and more!)

You can see who's standing to be your councillor in this document (pdf).

"How do I choose who to vote for?"

Most Exeter voters have a choice between candidates associated with the familiar parties from recent General Elections: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and UKIP...

"Wait. What the hell? What have these political goons got to do with judging planning applications or designing our parks?"

Hmm, yes, some voters find this odd: Why should decisions your councillor makes about the city have much to do with what national politicians are doing? Is there a distinctively Labour way of collecting bins? Is there a philosophically different UKIP way of judging planning applications? Does what Liberal Democrats say about the Syrian crisis have much to do with housing policy in Alphington? How do Conservative attitudes to European integration relate to the number of car parks we should have in Topsham?

Cats are individualists
It's a good point. We could of course have no local parties at all, just independents. And across the country there are indeed many councillors unaffiliated with these national parties. Nothing wrong with that.

But I'd suggest it's generally preferable for us to have a choice of a small number of manifestos offered across the city, than for us to end up with a council full of completely independent individuals with no clear common platform for the future of the city.

That's not to say there shouldn't be independent councillors; but a small number of distinct groupings within a council can be helpful. At the same time, rigid party-based decision-making that leaves no room for independent thought would obviously be wrong.

So parties are probably a good idea, but voters also need to take into account the record and plans of individual candidates.

"Yes. But why these parties?"

True, the parties competing to run councils needn't be the same parties competing to run the country.

We could have different groupings: The Populist Party and The Socialist Party, for example; or The Low Council Tax Party, The High Equality Party and The Centre Party; or The Federal UK Party, the Neo-Fascist Party and the Exeter Independence Party.

But there we go. It's the national parties which tend to be most well-known and the best organised. And in our weird British voting system it's hard for new parties to break through.

It might seem at times that the things that national politicians care about - income tax, the NHS, foreign affairs, and so on - don't have an awful lot to do with potholes in Pinhoe, parking in Polsloe, students in St James, speeding in St Leonard's, and so on.

On the other hand, there might in principle be philosophical differences between parties that lead to very different local plans. For example, one could imagine a radically free market approach to council services would differ substantially from an ardent socialist approach. Whether there are significant differences in practice I'm not so sure, but there are clearly broadly distinctive emphases, values and positions between these national parties that might influence different local choices in small ways.

"OK, so I just vote for the same party I'm voting for in the next General Election?"

Sure, some people decide which candidate to vote for entirely on the basis of the national parties.

But choosing your local councillor on the basis of what national politicians are doing is a little like choosing which train to catch on the basis of what you think of your Internet Service Provider.

And if you imagine that the generally hard-working folk who put their heads above the parapet to offer to help their communities as councillors have much to do with slick national politicians, you'd mostly be wrong. Candidates might broadly support the national parties, but disagree strongly with significant aspects. Ask them.

"Yes, but I want to send a message..."

Some people use their vote in local elections to "send a message". Usually the message is that they don't like what the Government is doing. Sometimes the message is to the Opposition that they need to switch tack. Sometimes the message is that all the main parties are useless.

It's tempting.

Exeter expects...
But I would suggest this is a bad way to select a councillor.

National politicians can see the opinion polls. They can read the papers, internet comments, the emails, the petitions. They can hear the vox pops, the focus groups, the booing on Question Time. They're acutely aware every day when people are unhappy with their performance. They don't need some kind of ballot box semaphore to receive a message.

The councillor you vote for will be representing your neighbourhood in all the decisions directly affecting your city. National politicians don't get "punished" if you vote for another party at the local election. The only person getting punished is yourself, because you're not focusing on selecting the councillor who best represents you.

If you want to punish national politicians who aren't doing what you want, just don't vote for them at the general election.

"Yeah, but they're all the same. Incompetent. Spineless. Meddling. Just in it for the expenses."

Devil councillor

That's not my experience.

And it has to be asked: If the decisions are so easy to get right and the expenses so lucrative, why don't you put yourself up for election?

Because I can imagine many more lucrative ways of spending my time than reading reams of council papers, sitting in a whole load of interminable meetings, and getting abuse from the Exeter Express and Echo letter pages, all for quite measly sums of money.

Let's see you put yourself on the line then.

"Oooh. Touched a nerve, eh?"

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there!

But the basic point is that we need more people willing to stand as councillors. A cross-section of society. Bright, thoughtful, hard-working, caring, conscientious people. We don't encourage people by hurling abuse and assuming the worst possible motives.

"OK. They're not all the same. Party A is useless. Party B works for you all year round. Party C politicians are just in it for their pals. Party D is always lying..."

Hmm... Yes, having said that councillors are not all the same, I wouldn't want to imply the truth of these kinds of generalisations, often bandied around in leaflets and on doorsteps.

I find it difficult to believe, for the main parties anyway, that one party's candidates are innately more untrustworthy than another's. Or automatically more useless. Or generally more hard-working, just by virtue of membership of a particular party.
Cat fight!
There are good councillors and bad councillors. And all varieties in-between. And I'm not sure any one party has a monopoly on either virtue or sin. These things vary depending on the place, and over time. And people can get better or worse.

So I don't think there are easy truisms here.

"Indigo Party can't win here..."

Beware the dodgy bar charts!

As I noted earlier, we have a slightly crazy voting system, which means that you can't just vote for the candidate you most want: you also have to take into account how others might vote.

Let's say past experience suggests the fight is basically between Candidate A and Candidate B. You like Candidate E, who (sadly) isn't going to attract many votes. Do you vote for who you want, or do you vote for whoever is better out of Candidates A and B? Tough choice.

"OK. Enough of the 'Local Elections 101'. What are the issues for 3 May?"

To be continued in the next blog post...!


1 comment:

  1. Really useful little guide... I hope it gets well-read! Slightly confused though... have cats got the vote now?! ;-)