Seventy-two per cent of Brummies who are registered to vote did not bother to participate in the city council elections and the mayoral referendum on May 3.
The 28 per cent that did visit polling stations delivered an expected landslide victory for the Labour Party, and put paid to the eight-year rule of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
The fact that significantly less than a third of the city’s electors had any interest in choosing their local representatives is indeed a dismal statistic.
There have been claims that such an appallingly low turnout was due to general public disenchantment with politics; the point was made forcibly by Hodge Hill Labour MP Liam Byrne when it became clear that Birmingham would decide against having a directly elected mayor.
Mr Byrne was right to conclude that most adults in Birmingham have no interest in deciding who their local councillors should be, but it does not follow automatically that the lack of enthusiasm for council elections signifies general apathy for politics.
Turnout at the 2010 General Election, for example, was 65 per cent across the country and reflected a rising trend since 2001. Participation in local government elections has always been lower than at General Elections, but only since the early 1990s has voter interest descended to such appalling levels.
Half of those participating in the 2012 Birmingham city council elections favoured Labour candidates. A quarter voted Conservative and 14 per cent Liberal Democrat. What this boils down to is that about 14 per cent of the total registered electorate voted Labour, seven per cent Conservative and less than four per cent voted Lib Dem.
There are many theories about why turnout is so low in council elections. The most popular explanation is that most people don’t think their vote will make a difference to decision making at the Council House – the ‘they’ll do what they want anyway, so why should I bother’ syndrome.
This belief may have been bolstered in Birmingham by the breathtaking arrogance displayed by both sides of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, with neither party bothering to publish an election manifesto. If you don’t tell people what you are going to do in office, you should not be very surprised when people do not vote for you.
Personally, I believe the political disconnect has much to do with an almost total lack of knowledge of what a council does and the role played by councillors. Mrs Thatcher has much to answer for following a decision in the mid-1980s to stop civics lessons by supposedly left-wing teachers, for we now have an entire generation of middle aged and younger people who neither know nor care about local government – and as far as many younger people are concerned, are proud to boast that they “don’t do politics”.
All of this of course is good news for the status quo. Change comes slowly, if at all, in town halls and in many instances Birmingham has not progressed much in the past 12 years.
The three party leaders on the city council – Sir Albert Bore (Lab), Mike Whitby (Con) and Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem) – have been around for a long time. Incredibly, they have almost 100 years of civic service between them.
Sir Albert has been Labour group leader since 1999 and a councillor for 32 years. Coun Tilsley has been in charge of the Lib Dems since 2005, although he was deputy leader before that and was first elected to the council in 1968. Coun Whitby, Tory group leader since 2003 and council leader from 2004 to 2012, is a relative newcomer with just 15 years council service.
Sir Albert will undoubtedly be delighted to move back into the council leader’s office from which he was evicted in June 2004. Sadly, most of the problems he wrestled unsuccessfully with between 1999 and 2004 are still apparent today.
Unemployment and social deprivation in parts of Birmingham are as bad as anywhere in the country, the workforce skills base is not fit to fill the new jobs that are available, and the much promised cascading down of wealth from the city centre to the suburbs hasn’t happened. This is a list of problems that might just as well have been bottled in aspic these past 12 years for all of the progress that has been made in tackling them.
At least Sir Albert can rely, in most years, on Birmingham’s natural Labour majority which only fails to materialise during exceptional times. A combination of the dying days of the Blair governments and the unpopularity of the Iraq war with Muslim voters gifted Birmingham to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2004 and kept Labour out of office for eight years.
Now, the Lib Dems are back to their default position. A handy 14 per cent of votes leaving them with 15 seats and just about enough leverage to hatch a deal with either the Tories or Labour should the occasion arise.
The 2012 local elections produced a shocking set of results for the Conservatives. The party managed to attract only 24 per cent of the total vote, its worst performance since the mid-1990s, and lost 11 seats. And as the Tories’ young deputy leader Robert Alden has recognised, plummeting support for the Conservatives in Birmingham is part of a pattern in recent years.
In a post-election email to colleagues, Coun Alden challenged the perceived wisdom that the poor performance was all down to voter backlash against the Government. Describing the results as the Tories’ ‘Dunkirk’, he called for a major change in direction with the development of new policies likely to appeal to the electorate.
His summary should be burned into the soul of every Conservative in Birmingham: “Our current course over recent decades has led us to a path where we win fewer seats in our good years and lose more in our bad years.
“This is down to the city changing and few die-hard Tory voters being here. That is why we have to give people a local reason to vote for us.
“To put it bluntly, we need to ensure there is clear blue water between us and the other parties. “
He thinks Birmingham Tories should be campaigning for more grammar schools, “drastically lower” council tax and a “quality refuse service”, and concluded the email with a blistering attack on the party’s election performance: “We cannot go into another election, looking out of touch and dated, with no vision or manifesto.”
Alden will presumably have chosen his Dunkirk analogy with care. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France was generally regarded as the low-point of the Second World War for the Allies – Churchill called it a “colossal military disaster”. It took four years to recover from the Dunkirk debacle, Birmingham Tories probably don’t have half as long to repair their fractured party.
Main illustration: Jas Sansi
- Birmingham Labour leader Sir Albert Bore unlikely to face challenge (birminghampost.net)