I feel a little embarrassed to tell you that I have never voted in local elections. I have never voted for any local Councillor, and I’ve been wondering why.

I am someone who is generally interested in the world around me (aka politics), I am someone who believes in democratic representation…I should be someone who votes in local elections. But.

I feel like I haven’t much of a clue about how local government works. I must take personal responsibility, because In The Age Of Information, ignorance is a choice. At the same time though, I can’t help but feel I am ‘normal’. I don’t imagine the average person is much more informed, maybe I’m wrong. I’d be interested to know, and so might try and put together a little poll asking how people would rate their understanding and/or engagement of local government.

Turnout statistics for local council elections are dire, generally only about 30-ish percent of the country bother to vote in them, unless they happen to coincide with a general election, when turnout almost doubles at around 60%. Basically, we are governed by people who were democratically elected, but whom hardly anyone voted for. Why are we so nonchalant about local government?

If the average person knows very little about how our world is organised, s/he’s unlikely to ever become engaged in it. Without engagement, there is no democracy, but I don’t think it’s as simple as willful apathy. This is not meant to be an essay about why people don’t engage, but I should imagine perceived powerlessness, an inadequate education system, not believing it makes a difference and the all-encompassing effort to make ends meet play their part. These things all serve the status quo.

I’m owning my ignorance and making some attempt to educate myself. I’ve been trying to understand the system a little better, and was weirdly slightly relived, because it’s much more complicated than I thought, so maybe i can extend to myself a little understanding (but not forgiveness- bar the odd Labour, Independent and Green beacons of light, there are a bunch of self-serving Tories running my local council, because people like me didn’t vote, and for that I am sorry). It is also incredibly boring to read about. In a nutshell, its complicated because there are different types of councils, because there are different ways councils can run elections, because of boundaries that define areas, and because there have been reforms to powers and responsibilities and huge cuts to budgets in the last few years.

I expected to spend a quick 20 mins reading a Wikipedia page to have a basic understanding of local government fundamentals…but I’ve been trawling the internet late at night when my kids are finally tucked up for a few evenings now, and although I probably have a slightly better understanding, I still feel confused. That’s why this post is a bit ambitious of me, but i want to try and make some sense of what I’ve learned, in the hope it might be useful to someone else.

What is ‘local government’ and what do Local Councillors Do?

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The UK is split into areas, and areas are run by councils. Local Councillors are democratically elected by residents living in the relevant areas. Any British citizen can stand in local council elections if they are over 18, meet certain criminal record criteria and have lived, worked or owned a property in the relevant area for 12 months before an election (particularly notable because owning properties seems to give affluent people a political and representational advantage, ill-afforded by ‘normal’ people). Candidates can stand independently or with party affiliation (IE as a Labour/Tory/Misc candidate). You could stand in your local area if you were so inclined (and I hope you are).

As I understand it, there are different types of council structures depending on the area. Most have a 2 tier local government system. ‘County Councils’ cover each county (such as my local Isle of Wight County Council). A County Council is an elected administrative organisation, generally responsible for vital services such as education, social care, transport, waste management, and much more. District, Borough and City/Town Councils cover smaller areas and are responsible for stuff like waste collection, tax collection, recycling, housing and planning. Parish councils deal with things such as graffiti, allotments and dog fouling. Some areas, such as London have just 1 tier of local government responsible for all services.

All pretty bloody important stuff, then, sort of crucial to our daily lives, our happiness and that of those we care about. So wtaf aren’t we out there voting in local elections? General Election turn out depresses me (although i thoroughly understand why people aren’t engaged, having  previously being among their number myself), and local election turn out speaks of  systematic (willful?) failure of the powers that be to ensure that all people are given the tools they need to understand and engage with the democratic process. If we really want to live in a democracy (do we?) then we have to make political engagement culturally normal. Wtf didn’t we learn this stuff in school? Or at university, even?! Why didn’t my parents teach me? Why am I googling how local government works as a 34 year old woman? I should know this stuff. It should just be one of those ingrained things, like we all know the words to Twinkle Star and we all know that (rather dull, imo) painting of that long haired woman with the supposed mysterious smile is called the Mona Lisa. We should all know the basic fundamentals about how our world is organised, how local and national government is structured and how we can play a part within it. Vitally, we should all understand why voting is so important, and we should all be able to have faith that it works, that it really is representative, that the people who are making the decisions really are making them on our behalf and in our best interests. You may say I’m a dreamer…

There are different structures for electing local Councillors; some areas elect all Councillors every 4 years, some elect half every 2 years, and some elect one third of the local Councillors every year for 3 years and hold no elections in the 4th year – phew! More info here

Local government structure is generally similar to national government; Councillors are elected from different areas (wards) across a county and there is normally an ‘executive’, like a cabinet, a group of Councillors with particular responsibilities, like Social Care or Education. The entire council meet to discuss, debate, amend and vote on issues and motions, which then become public policy and contribute to the definition of local life.

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You can identify and contact your local Councillor via this link.

How Can I Vote In Local Elections?

YOU HAVE TO BE REGISTERED! Sorry for the shouting, but this couldn’t really be more essential. If you’re not on the Electoral Register, you will not be given a say in the things that matter to you and influence your life, your well-being and the well-being of those you love. If you have a National Insurance number and you are eligible to vote, you can register to vote online, it takes literally 3 minutes and its simple.

I spoke to a single mum when out campaigning a couple of months ago, who told me that she wanted to vote, but was afraid to register because she was in so much debt that she feared the bailiffs would find her via the electoral roll. This makes me sad and angry, I’m not sure which emotion I feel most. I had spoken with this lady for the best part of half an hour, and she had told me how she works nights as a carer to make ends meet, but has still found herself in spiraling debt, including rent arrears. She was evidently a loving mother and a good person, and she was interested in what we call life and what they call politics, but she was entirely disenfranchised because she is poor. She is not represented in our democracy, she feels excluded from the conversation and unable to play a roll in creating a better world for her kids, because she is poor. She works in a job that is absolutely essential to our society, on the front line of social care (one of the ‘unsung heroes’ our government are happy to harp on about but unwilling to ensure fair pay and working conditions for), and she is lives in fear of every knock at the door, or worse, of loosing the walls and the door completely.

There are 2 types of registers, The Electoral register and The Open Register. The Open register can be sold on to pretty much anyone, meaning your data is not protected, but you can opt out of this when registering. The ‘closed’ register can only legally be accessed by certain people or groups, but this does explicitly include credit reference agencies and courts, and so I expect bailiffs, too. Most of us would forsake our right to representation if not doing so would bring the wolves right to our doors.

The really unjust thing about it all, aside from the personal struggle people like her face everyday, is the fact that there is no hope for change while this continues. People like her, people like us, millions of us, cannot be represented for as long as we are afraid or unable to engage in the democratic process.

We must get out on polling day. We have a duty to do everything we can to be a voice for those who feel they cannot use their own. People like that lady remind me why it is imperative that i exercise my right and ability not only to vote in general and local elections, but to be as fully engaged as I can be, so that I can ensure that people like me have a voice and are represented, on behalf of those who, for whatever reason, feel they cannot. We also have a duty and responsibility to try and change the system until it is as inclusive and accessible (and therefore representative), as we can possibly make it.

Please register to vote, make sure your friends and family are registered to vote, and share this link to easy on-line registration, far and wide.

The timing of your local elections will depend on where you are, but if you’re registered to vote you should recieve a polling card in the run up to an election, but it can’t hurt to call your local council and check.

Upcoming Isle Of Wight By Election

Residents on the Isle of Wight, specifically Central Wight, have a by-election on January the 25th. Bob Seely, also our island Tory MP, was the Councillor for Central Wight, but has resigned, giving some syrupy schpeel about how he has come to realise he cannot properly serve the people of Central Wight as they deserve because he doesn’t have time, given his other role in parliament. He has attended just 1 of 4 council meetings in the last 6 months. His party leader, Teresa May, gave away their majority in the snap general election, resulting in a hung parliament that requires Bobs attendance and vote, to make up numbers. IW council meetings and House of commons sessions are held at the same time, and although Bob knew this 6 months ago, he was not so concerned about serving the people of Central Wight back then. His concern would have seemed a lot more sincere if he’d resigned as Councillor then, to ensure the people of Central Wight get the attentive local representative they deserve.

The person the Tories have lined up to replace Seely is former Portsmouth UKIP candidate, Steve Hastings. Currently serving as Councillor for the Tories on the Baffins ward of Portsmouth City Council, he is known as the ‘phantom Councillor’, because he is rarely there as he lives on the Island (he is also a Councillor for Newport Parish Council).  Apparently, representing and serving the people of Baffins, isn’t a high priority for him.

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According to an opinion piece in The Isle Of Wight County Press, minutes of an IW local  meeting suggest many months before his resignation from local government, Bob Seely had been asking people refer to Steve Hastings with local issues, (despite Hastings not ever standing, let alone being elected by anyone on the Isle of Wight) until a ‘more permanent arrangement’ could be made.

Do those seem like the actions of a Councillor deeply concerned with the true democratic representation of and service to his deserving constituents, or the actions of a man who is primarily interested in protecting the power of his own party? Is it OK that the people of Baffins and of Central Wight have not been properly represented this year, because 2 Tory Councillors would rather keep their seats despite being unable to properly serve their electorate, than resign? Would serve themselves and their party rather than you, the people they are elected to represent?

The Tories and Bob Seely previously won 75% of the vote share. Getting them out is going to be an uphill struggle, but not impossible. Not if the ordinary people of Central Wight  get out on Thursday 25th January and make their voices heard. According to The IWCC, there are 3,323 residents in the Central Wight ward, yet just under 1,400 voted in the last election, which I was quite pleased to see is higher than the national average (but not nearly high enough!). Central Wight has many second/holiday homes among its number; i wonder how many of those Tory votes came from voters who don’t live here…

Do you live in Central Wight? This is sort of Shorewell, Brighstone, Gatcombe, Mottistone, Rookley area (see map below). Are you registered to vote? Please go go out on Thursday the 25th of January and make sure your local government actually represents you and people like you, and will make decisions based on your interests, and not their own.

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I cannot vote in this by-election, because I am not a resident of Central Wight, but if I could, I would most certainly be voting for the local Labour Candidate, Simon Haytack. For information on the other 4 candidates (Green, Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP), click here.

If you are a resident of Central Wight, you still have time to register to vote. You have until the 9th of January and you can do it right now, in less than the time it takes to make a brew, by clicking this link.

You know I hope you vote Labour. But above all else, I just really hope you get out and vote.