Elections, results and what they tell us about our democracy

So the excitement is over; the elections have been held, won, or lost, and we are all poring over the results to see what they tell us.

Here’s my take on a small bit of the results.

The issues that are important and don’t get discussed

There are two things that I think require more discussion than they normally get:

  • Turnout
  • The electoral system

So I will talk about these two issues but in the specific context of one local authority area where I know the figures in detail.

Haringey – Turnout

Haringey is an inner London borough, which has been Labour controlled for 43 years or so. It has been in the news over time for bad reasons rather than good ones. It’s done a lot of good stuff, too, but that doesn’t get reported in the press and media usually.

It is a borough that, like many London boroughs, has a wide range of neighbourhoods, a pretty high level of inequality, some of the common inner city problems and some very nice parts of the area with green spaces. It is, in its own way, quite a typical borough and not that dissimilar from other metropolitan areas.

So let’s look at the turnout for the elections that happened in May 2014. These were elections for all 57 councillors and for the European Parliament. The last time that the 57 councillors had been elected was in 2010, an election that coincided with the last general election. This has had an impact on turnout.

The graph below shows that clearly:

Turnout 1

The turnout in the 2010 election (when there was also a general election) was, on average nearly 22 percent higher than this time round (when there was also a European election).

This is significant; people seem to be exercised about Europe and the influence the European Union has, but that doesn’t translate into actual voting. So the question is: why is that so? Media coverage of matters European may have something to do with it. Rather than explaining what is going on in the European Union and what – if anything – we can do about it, they just go on and on about how it’s all the fault of inaccessible bureaucrats in Brussels. The coverage makes people feel less empowered and therefore less engaged. Political parties have their share of the responsibility because they also do very little about explaining how the system works and – more to the point – what they are doing, both in the European Parliament and in the Council of the European Union (where it is our governments that wield influence).

The other interesting thing about the figures represented in the graph is the fact that there is a very distinct difference between the two parliamentary constituencies that make up Haringey: Tottenham and Hornsey and Wood Green respectively. The graph below (same information as above but displayed by constituency) shows that clearly:

Turnout showing constituency difference

Here, the wards in the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency are coloured in a darker blue for the 2010 results and it shows that consistently 7 of the 10 wards in that constituency have a higher turnout than the other wards in the borough. This is more marked in 2010 than in 2014, but it still applies for both election years.

So why don’t people vote; of course, there are a raft of reasons for this. On the doorstep, when campaigning in the run-up to the election, I was often met with remarks such as: ‘voting doesn’t make any difference’, ‘they’re all corrupt’, ‘they don’t do what they promises’, and so on.

Politicians should think about this.

But there are other issues:

  • Local authorities don’t make it a priority to get people registered to vote. So that’s a problem.
  • There are time limits so people who have recently moved don’t bother to register or miss the deadline; and in London, where lots of especially younger people move quite a lot, this is especially difficult. There could be a system of registering to vote on the day of the election at the polling station; that would maybe get more people in.
  • There is little visible campaigning going on. A friend, who spent a couple of weeks before the election in Sicily reported that every town and village was full of election posters (they had European Parliament elections as well, of course). So everyone was aware of the fact that a vote was happening. When I lived in Belgium for some time, there were posters everywhere with the pictures of candidates when it was time for elections. You couldn’t really miss it.
  • Whilst you don’t need to have a polling card to vote, not being sent one in good time means you’re more likely to forget to go to vote. I didn’t get a polling card (I know I am registered and I did vote); nor did a lot of other people in my street and in the surrounding area. Getting polling cards delivered correctly and on time should be a priority. But it clearly isn’t.
  • Once survey reported in the media suggested that in the week before the election 38% of those surveyed did not know that there was an election happening. Little wonder then that lots of people don’t participate.

But in essence, this means that the majority of those entitled to vote do not vote. In this year’s election for local councillors the highest turnout in one ward was 49.38%; that’s less than half. So should those people who are elected feel that they have a proper mandate from their electors? We are skating on thin ice, I think.

The Electoral System

For the local elections it’s the usual first past the post (FFP). That means that in every ward there are three councillors to be elected and they are on the ballot in alphabetical order and voters put a cross against the three people they want to vote for. So then the three people who get the most votes in each ward get elected: so far, so simple. But what happens to all the votes that were cast for other people. They are lost.

I know we’ve had a referendum about proportional representation and I know that the status quo won the day. But I happen to be one of those people who think that the issue isn’t dead and shouldn’t be.

So here are some numbers from the vote in Haringey that compare the actual results in 2010 and in 2014 (local election only in both cases) with the results that could have happened with a system of proportional representation.

As I said, Haringey is a Labour council and has been for 43 years. As someone who believes very much in the democratic process, I also believe in the need for change in governments. It doesn’t do for one party to feel that they are unassailable; it makes them complacent. So a system that returns a Labour council each time irrespective of what the voters say at the ballot box is not very helpful to the democratic process and to a sense of engagement of the voters.

My analysis of the results

What I have done is to take the results from the local elections in 2010 and 2014 from the Haringey website and I have calculated the number of votes each political party got. I did this by adding the votes for all the candidates from each political party (by ward initially and then for the Council as a whole) and I have calculated that as a percentage of the total votes cast.

There are issues with doing this because of course in a different system voters might do things differently; for example, voters in the system we have can vote for three candidates from three different parties; if the system were based solely on voting for one or another party, then the results might look different. But this is the analysis of the information we have.

In the 2010 election, the picture looked like this:

Haringey seats 2010

So the blue columns show the distribution of actual seats; the brick coloured columns show the distribution of seats if they had been allocated on a the basis of applying the percentage of the votes cast for candidates of a party to the number of seats to be won. In the latter case, Labour would still have been the largest party in the Council but instead of having 34 seats they would have had 23; they would have had to have worked more effectively with others and they would have had to listen much more to divergent and diverse views. Now wouldn’t that be a good idea when the issue is about providing decent services for local people.

The picture in 2014 is broadly similar but the results are much starker:

Haringey seats 2014

Instead of 48 seats Labour would have had 29 seats. It is clear that Labour gained in terms of their share of the vote. But does the gain in the share of the vote bear any relation to the gain in the share of the seats?

Here’s another picture:

Labour seats and votes change

So for a gain of just under 10% in the vote, Labour gained 25% of the seats on the Council.

No wonder people are disengaged.

So where does it leave us?

On the basis of the turnout, about 62 percent of voters did not bother to vote; that’s a lot of people.

Of those who did, 29 percent of the votes cast were cast for parties that didn’t get any representation. That represents another 10 percent of voters; so the proportion of people who are not effectively represented as a result of this election is around 72 percent.

It’s not really democracy, is it?

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About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
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