Ian Swanson: Vital vote lacking polling power among electorate

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How many people will bother to have their say in next week’s council elections? Political Editor Ian Swanson examines fears of a low turnout

POLLING day is still a week away, but thousands of people are already voting in Edinburgh’s city council elections. The battle for control of the Capital will not be settled until after the polls close next Thursday night, but postal votes were issued earlier this week to more than 62,500 electors and completed voting slips are already arriving back at council headquarters.

There has been a surge in the number of people opting for postal votes in recent years, up from just over 8000 in 1999.

Despite that dramatic increase, politicians fear the overall number of people who bother to vote in these elections will be lower than in other recent polls.

It is the first time since 1995 that there have been council elections which are not on the same day as Scottish Parliament elections. Holding the Holyrood vote and the council one together generally boosted turnout for the local authority elections, but after the last joint poll in 2007, MSPs decided to separate the elections in a bid to avoid confusion and “give due prominence to local elections in their own right”.

The turnout in Edinburgh in 2007 was as high as 67.6 per cent in Colinton/Fairmilehead ward, dipping below 50 per cent only in Sighthill/Gorgie, where it was 49.5 per cent.

But this time there are fears the average turnout could be down to between 30 and 40 per cent.

City Labour group leader Andrew Burns says: “Turnout is a concern because this is the first standalone council elections since 1995.”

He says it is “not realistic” to expect turnout to equal the levels seen when the Scottish Parliament elections were on the same day in 1999, 2003 and 2007.

“It was 44 per cent in 1995 and turnout generally has gone down since then, so I’m expecting it to be around the 40 per cent mark,” he says.

Councillor Burns says if people don’t go and vote they are missing out on a chance to influence what happens in the city.

“The vast majority of day-to-day services people depend on – schools, roads, street cleaning, leisure facilities – are delivered by local councils, not the Scottish Parliament or Westminster, and it is crucial members of the public have their say on who will run these services for the next five years.

“These are an important set of elections – the next ones won’t be until May 2017.”

Cllr Burns does believe, however, that issues such as the trams and the privatisation plans – eventually abandoned – have angered people enough to make them want to vote to deliver a verdict on what has gone before.

“There is a lot of concern about what has happened in Edinburgh over the last five years,” he says. “I suspect that will lead to a bigger turnout in Edinburgh than elsewhere.”

SNP group leader Steve Cardownie says the speculation is that in some places only one in three people will bother voting.

“It will be a shame if it’s a low turnout,” he says. “What the council does affects all aspects of people’s lives, arguably more than Holyrood or Westminster. If people decide not to vote and leave it to others to decide who their representatives will be, that’s their prerogative, but councillors prefer to have more of a mandate by seeing a good turnout.”

Although part of the reason for holding council elections on a separate day was to allow the focus to be solely on local matters, Cllr Cardownie acknowledges national politics will inevitably influence people’s votes.

But he argues the council will get its mandate on local issues, saying: “All the parties have issued local manifestos which people can read and base their decision on.”

But are people even aware there is an election taking place? Cllr Cardownie points out this will be the first election for a long time when lampposts are not festooned with posters. The council voted last year to ban the practice following complaints they were left up for weeks or even months.

“We would normally have been putting them up this Saturday,” he says. “I don’t know there’s any evidence they actually increased turnout, but they certainly reminded people there was an election on.”