Looking at the basic facts nothing changed in South Leeds. We had nine Labour Councillors before last Thursday and we have the same nine Labour Councillors after the election. UKIP’s ‘earthquake’ certainly saw their vote rise significantly, but in the end didn’t really threaten Labour’s position.
I’m told by people who know about these things that if Labour do lose in South Leeds, or they lose the Leeds Central parliamentary constituency, it will mean the party are in big trouble nationally. Apparently these are some of the safest Labour seats in the country.
So that’s what happened with the people who voted. The ‘share of the vote’ is what is picked over endlessly by pundits and analysts. ‘How would this translate in the general election?’ is the question that is always asked.
But what about the people who didn’t vote? They won (or lost) the election hands down. Across the city two thirds of the registered voters didn’t vote. The figures in South Leeds are even worse rising to more than three quarters in City & Hunslet ward, which had the lowest turnout in the city. I suspect there are plenty of people in South Leeds who aren’t even on the electoral register, so that’s even more non-voters.
I am reminded of the introduction to Gil Scott-Heron’s song ‘B Movie’ about the apparent landslide vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 US presidential election. In it he dissects the received wisdom that Reagan had won an overwhelming endorsement for radical change when only 28% of the registered voters, not even 28% of the American people, voted for him.
If you were to map turnout against deprivation I expect you would find a pretty clear correlation. You might expect poverty to make people angry and want change. I think it does, but for many people it’s hard to focus on much beyond their own personal circumstances, on survival. People who feel powerless are unlikely to vote.
What about voter apathy? Is it that we don’t care, or that we’re disconnected from the politicians. South Leeds Life tried to do its bit. We gave a platform to the candidates, which many of them took up. Looking at our stats, many of you looked at the information provided and there was a definite spike of interest on election day. So it looks like some of you were using the information to help you make up your minds.
Although the turnout was pitifully low, the votes did increase compared to the last election in 2012. I’d like to think this was down to South Leeds Life, but I think the fact that there was a European election and the media love-in with UKIP were more responsible. If you’re interested, I wrote a piece about our election coverage on the Centre for Community Journalism’s blog.
Would it make a difference if politicians lived in the area they served? Only three of our nine Councillors live in the ward they represent and our MP lives in London. Most of them do a good job and are seen out and about in the area, but I do wonder how much they really understand about the area. I don’t mean this as a personal criticism. You can gen up on the all the demographic data, school performance tables, indices of deprivation, unemployment statistics, etc, etc. But it’s not the same as picking up your child from the local primary school or popping into the Co-op on Friday evening.
There’s a good reason why our Councillors and MP aren’t from round here (if I can put it like that). It goes back to these being safe seats. As a party, looking at the whole council or parliament, you want your best, ablest candidates to be sure to win. Politicians starting out are not given these easy to win seats, you have to earn the right by fighting the opposition’s safe seats or if you’re lucky in a marginal seat.
The elections do matter. All sorts of decisions, locally and nationally are made by people who are elected by us, from how often your bin is collected to how much tax you pay. We all need to do our bit to increase awareness and interest in what’s going on. That’s why South Leeds Life tried to offer you more information about the candidates this year and why we will carry on and do the same again next year.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.