Yesterday, something between a quarter and a third of registered voters in Ipswich cast a vote for the council candidate of their choice. I can be fairly sure of that, although the count hadn’t yet taken place when I wrote this, because it has been so at every council election I have attended since 1993. That means between two thirds and three quarters of voters in Ipswich didn’t vote this year, and many of them have probably never voted in a council election unless it happened to coincide with a General Election.
Of course, a General Election is more important. In my view councils do not have as much power as they ought to have, and national governments – of whatever party – shouldn’t interfere so much in how they are run. I think the voters sense that. But it would be wrong to think it makes no difference who runs your local council – without going over all the arguments again, Ipswich Borough Council has very different priorities from the other Districts in Suffolk because it is a Labour-run authority and believes in public services to help everyone, not just those who can afford to buy things privately.
Even in General Elections there are around a quarter of voters who never vote at all. Often the people who don’t vote are the ones who are most affected by a change in government. Every one of us pays taxes or receives benefits, we all rely on public services, we all need armed forces to protect us from attack abroad and police to keep us safe at home. Almost every one of us has been educated by the state, or has children or grandchildren who are being educated by the state. We all need health-care – even those who can afford it and choose to “go private” will be relying on state-trained doctors and nurses and often NHS facilities too. And even if we don’t live in a council house ourselves, we would all benefit from living in a society where more council housing was being built, so that everyone could either rent or buy a decent home.
The level of these services, and who pays for them, are mainly determined by the national government, but much of the actual work is done by local councils. If you care at all about the quality of your life or the quality of your children’s lives it makes no sense not to vote.
So why do people not vote? Firstly, they don’t know what the parties stand for. Most politicians now have websites where people can read our views, and most of us respond to direct questions from voters too. But in a nutshell, Labour wants better public services and is prepared to ask those with the most money – over £80,000 per year – to pay extra to achieve them. The Conservatives want to give people tax cuts – and most of those tax cuts go to the wealthiest people. That’s a very simplistic description of the two parties, but it’s largely accurate.
Secondly, people say “well my one vote won’t count”. The problem is that the people who don’t bother to vote are not a balanced cross-section of voters. Most people who don’t vote earn less than the average wage, so it’s hard for a Party that wants to help the less well-off to get elected. Most young people under 25 don’t vote either – why be surprised when tuition fees are tripled, housing benefit is refused to under-25s, the minimum wage is artificially low for younger workers, and less and less council properties are made available to young families?
Thirdly, people say “well I voted last time and it didn’t make any difference, so why should I vote again?” It took nearly fifty years from the foundation of the Labour Party before people finally voted in a government which was able to introduce the NHS. If Ipswich voters had said after 1938 “well I voted for that Dick Stokes but he hasn’t transformed society yet”, we would never have got the 1945 Labour Government.
There’s lots of things Labour would like to do but we can’t make them happen while the Conservatives are in Government. If you agree with our programme for building a fairer, healthier and greener Britain, and ensuring the wealthy pay their taxes to achieve it, then your vote in elections – local and national – will help to build the Britain you want to be proud of.