Leafleting us into submission

10:21 am - May 1st 2008

by Simon Barrow    

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So how goes the vote your way? Here in Exeter we’re not exactly at election fever pitch. Most people seem more concerned about unleaded petrol going over the £5 a gallon mark, and whether City will make it back into the Football League – having narrowly missed out in last season’s play-off final at Wembley.

Then again, the candidates and their publicity machines haven’t treated us to a feast of sophisticated argument or a panoply of significant fact.

The Lib Dems, as usual, pile on leaflets implying that they are “winning here”, “neck-and-neck” there, and “almost home” everywhere. The Tories try to steal a national opinion poll march on good community politicians by refusing to use their names and referring to them as “Gordon Brown’s candidate”. The Greens are virtually absent. Apart from Labour’s ‘home rule’ team, that leaves UKIP (enough said) and our local exoticism, the continuing Liberal Party.

What of Gordon’s crew? They are not covering themselves in glory by putting out an attack leaflet accusing anybody who questions their ferocious attachment to a unitary city authority as wanting a “closing down sale” for democracy, seeking to “betray the City”, “wipe Exeter from the political map of Devon” and “threaten 800 years of civic history”.

Just in case that’s not clear, Labour offer a timeline for the destruction of our dear county-town-writ-large, complete with the Norman siege, the Perkin Warbeck rebellion, the Nazi blitz… and the Liberal Democrats and Tories favouring different local government configurations. Do they really think voters are that crudely suggestible? Apparently so.

The actual issue is, dare we say, rather more complex and ambiguous. Labour-controlled Exeter City Council’s last unitary bid was knocked back on grounds of sustainability by the Department for Communities and Local Government in December 2007, and a boundary consultation will now take place in the summer with a decision to be made by 31 December.

Meanwhile, Devon County Council and Torbay and Plymouth councils have put forward proposals that will see the two urban conurbations widen their boundaries to absorb neighbouring towns and villages, while the rest of Devon is governed by one huge authority. The county council proposes to replace 62 county and 337 district councillors with 100 unitary councillors.

There are all kinds of objections to any and all of this, ranging from gerrymandering to navel gazing, to expense, to disproportion, to problems with viable multilevel service delivery. Many see other issues as more important and wonder if there isn’t a case for the status quo.

None of the childish nonsense pouring through our letterboxes helps people address these issues, or many other concerns really. To a lot of potential voters it looks like so much blame shift, generalised claims to greenness or virtue, and attempts to skew statistics for sectional advantage. Which, frankly, it is.

Several thoughtful people I’ve talked to say they are “past knowing or caring” and find it difficult to get enthusiastic about local democracy when its protagonists behave like this. It’s very sad.

In 1998 there was an all-time low local poll turnout of 28 per cent. In elections since then there has been an upswing, but there is little sign that the Local Government Association’s worthy campaign to encourage participation among 46 million registered voters has got through to those on the unimaginative and confrontational front line. Whatever happens today, something much more radical is needed.

OK, now we can all get back to being on tenterhooks about the outcome of the London Mayoral election and the Democratic primaries.

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About the author
Simon Barrow is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is co-director of Ekklesia, a think tank looking at issues of religion in society from a radical Christian perspective. He is a writer, theologian, consultant and commentator and also blogs at FaithInSociety
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Labour party ,Libdems ,Our democracy

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Reader comments

OK, now we can all get back to being on tenterhooks about the outcome of the London Mayoral election and the Democratic primaries.

Ha ha! Much as Exeter politics sounds interesting Simon, I think I’ll take you up on your suggestion. The Mayoral election has been interesting – other than that you’re spot on with how crap local politics is.

Well, round here a few things came through the letterbox but no-one actually bothered to knock on it. Hardly motivating to get out and vote, is it?

You’d almost imagine local politicians welcomed apathy. No better way to maintain the old status quo.

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