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It was more like a blockbuster movie than a quiet Thursday night in my home town. One woman in a race against time: the smell of scorched rubber as her car screeched to a halt in front of the building, leaping out of from behind the wheel tightly clutching a piece of paper, hurling herself at the closed double doors, hoping against hope it was not too late. And it wasn’t: at exactly two minutes to ten o’clock last night, I cast my vote in our local elections.
My local authority only started counting this morning, so I don’t yet know how critical my last-gasp ‘x’ in the plywood cubicle turned out to be. But they’ve already announced a turnout of 31%. So seven out of 10 people eligible to vote stayed away. Some, like me, probably meant to vote but ended up leaving it (almost) too late because a fantastic meal and long overdue catch-up with friends led to missing the 10pm cut-off. But for most, sadly, it never crossed their minds to exercise their democratic right.
I spent many years working in local government, and before that reporting on it, so have whiled away hundreds of hours in long and often fairly boring council meetings, as elected representatives pontificate, score points off each other and also (I promise) try and make good decisions for the people they represent. I have listened to extraordinary debates that polarised around political ideology and prejudice, or that appeared to ignore whole sections of the local community, or where data and figures were disregarded or distorted to justify a decision. I have also witnessed people do really good things: making high-quality, considered and often difficult decisions about our built environment, education, social services, and even down to refuse collections, and could affirm that something really great just happened here.
I used to reflect that if you could make local people come and listen to what was being said and done in their names, a lot more would then go vote. Everyone involved in our democratic institutions – from local councils to political parties – has a role in promoting the importance of voting and opening up democratic processes to more people. The communications guys at Northamptonshire County Council, my local authority, clearly worked hard to do this over the last few weeks, and should be commended for their efforts. While 31% is a low turnout, the sad truth is that without their campaign it probably would have been even lower.