LOCAL ELECTIONS REVEAL A LOW TURNOUT AND A DELICATE HARMONY

by Hannah Rose

Norwich strengthened its status as a Labour hold council at the local elections on May 5th, winning four seats from the Greens in Mancroft, Nelson, Town Close and Wensum. With this the case, it might seem surprising that the role of Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner went to Conservative Lorne Green, who quite comfortably beat Labour’s Chris Jones. Looking at the city result you quickly see that Jones was the preferred choice – by a 10,000-vote strong margin. So Norwich wanted Labour – but Norfolk didn’t. This result is a stark reminder of the difference in political opinion between the city and the rest of the county – a county where UKIP and Conservative have half the seats.

The overall voting turnout for the local elections was just over a third of the electorate—36.3%. Electoral turnout for the PCC elections across the whole of Norfolk was less than a quarter at 23.8%. Why was turnout so low? Do people feel less connected to their local representatives than they do their central government counterparts? In last year’s general election, average turnout in Norfolk was around 65% – still nothing to boast about. Councillors are community champions, local people with a vested interest in their area and familiar faces around the city. They have the capacity make our city safer and greener, and support investment in local projects. They also have the power to take these things away and impose austerity. Local councils are the more manifest side of politics; they make action happen at ground level. We should be turning out to vote in droves.

Photo credit: Rui Vieira

Abstaining from voting is a contentious issue in Norfolk right now, and not just because of the low turnout of the general public. At a higher level it has caused a rift in the left alliance. At the Norfolk County Council AGM on May 10th, the four Green councillors abstained from voting on the leadership and effectively handed it over to Conservative Cliff Jordan. Clive Lewis MP spoke out about their decision in an open letter in which he said: By handing the County over to the Tories, perversely they have paved the way for a party which makes unfair cuts with relish.” Just last week I expressed my concern at losing the Green presence at the local level if Labour were to take seats from them. Now that the Greens have turned away from the left alliance, there’s a real chance that their voice might be squashed, which would be a shame – the Greens have done good things for Norwich and Norfolk, such as helping block plans for an incinerator.

Dialogue between differences is strength; it’s where we find our mutual ground where compromise and true democracy can take effect. And this is true for Labour and Greens. But while I was election telling at Jessop Road on May 5th, I sensed the flow of conversation shutting down in my city. Quite a few people who came to vote also came to complain to myself and the Green teller that they had been woken up in the early hours by people stapling Vote Green’ posters over their Labour boards. The left alliance is endangered from the roots up, it seems. Why are we silencing each other, and remaining quiet when asked to speak up?

Dialogue between differences is strength; it’s where we find our mutual ground where compromise and true democracy can take effect.

Election telling is a strange experience that offers a small window of observation into the public’s civic duty on election day. I was there in the sleepy hours of 7-9am as Norwich was waking up. The election officials asked me to sit on the steps and stay out of the way, warning me that I “might get crushed in the stampede.” Last year’s general election saw queues of people waiting to vote outside the polling station when Clive Lewis was elected, and people even parked their cars on the neatly-tended lawn at the front of the church. This year the officials put up fences and a barrier in anticipation of another surge of voters.

Needless to say, I did not get crushed in a stampede. But I did witness a steady trickle of voters as the doors opened at 7: first the joggers, dog walkers and the early shift workers. Then university staff, pensioners, and parents on the school run asking if I would keep an eye on their children’s scooters. A first-time voter on his way to college thrust his polling card in my direction and said he was going to tell all his mates to come and vote. Good man, I hope they did, and that they made up some of the 36.3% that did actually turn up.

If we are to challenge austerity measures set by the Tories—particularly now that Norfolk Country Council is lead by Cliff Jones—a left alliance in Norwich between Labour and Green is vital. But this is only achievable as long as we keep voting and talking to each other. We can’t just ignore our differences – but we can and should be trying to find a way to make it work, especially when the Tories are the only alternative.

Labour now has 26 seats, Greens 10, and Lib Dems 3.

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