Leading Article: Time for change in local voting

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FEWER PEOPLE turned out to vote in Thursday's local elections than in any comparable democratic contest in modern times. Obviously this is not a "good thing". But a closer examination of the evidence suggests that democracy is not quite approaching the collapse some would have us believe.

One powerful explanation for the low rate of participation lies in the "nationalisation" of local elections. In recent decades they have become an excellent vehicle for the disgruntled voter to punish an unpopular government. Politicans can't easily rubbish them as they do the opinion polls or by-elections. Unsuccessful leaders have to answer to armies of walking wounded ex-councillors. The trend became more pronounced over this decade, starting with the protest over the poll tax in 1990 which contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Then local elections became referendums on the personal fate of John Major. Many perfectly blameless Tory councillors saw their careers end this way.

Most of the nation, however, got its protesting out of its system with the election of Tony Blair's government. Happily for him the local elections came after a fortnight of coverage about his unprecedented popularity. People registered their content with the state of national politics by simply staying at home. This is not inevitable. We can be sure that if Mr Blair had announced an Abolition of the World Cup (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill on the morning of 7 May then things might have been different.

So this year, in the absence of a protest vote, and with the content majority abstaining, those who did actually bother to turn out did so for the right - local - reasons. The diverse pattern of results suggests, as Professor Anthony King observed, that these were the most "local" of local elections. Labour, for example, found itself struggling in Hackney, where it has been embroiled in a rather distasteful scandal, but making surprising progress in Harrow. The Liberal Democrats could take the leader of Sheffield Council's seat on the same night as their deputy leader on the Isle of Wight took a nasty tumble. The Conservatives were able to make up ground in Battersea whilst they lost Bromley.

This proves that it is possible for local contests to be fought on local issues. Nevertheless, turnout figures this low cannot be good for the long-term health of our democracy. The proposed reforms of local democracy and introduction of directly elected mayors will help re-invigorate local democracy. Mr Blair should speed up his reforms. He may not have much time before the protest voters return to boost the turnout figures for all the wrong reasons.