That’s the real figure that the chattering political classes of south London ought to be concerned about this weekend, after a minority of the people of Croydon and Sutton returned Steve O’Connell and Boris Johnson to City Hall. Turn-out in our London Assembly constituency on Thursday was just 38 per cent – meaning nearly two-thirds of people just couldn’t be arsed.
London, as Boris never tires of reminding us, is one of the world’s greatest cities, with around 8million citizens. And Johnson gets to be the Mayor of this great city having attracted the votes of barely 1 in 8 of the population.
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, is it?
You never see adverts on the telly for cat food saying “1 in 8 cats say they prefer Boris” do you?
For his part, even with second preference votes, Ken Livingstone attracted the support of little more than 1 million Londoners.
So between them, the two big beasts of London politics, two of the best known and most readily recognised political characters, attracted the votes of just 1 in 4 Londoners. By any normal measure, that’s a bit crap isn’t it?
Tomorrow’s Sunday newspapers will offer much analysis of how in council elections across the nation, people rejected the clusterfuck (copyright Malcolm Tucker) of incompetence that is David Cameron and Gideon Osborne‘s ConDem government, yet London somehow opted to back a different “arrogant posh boy” in Boris.
But few of the pundits, if any, will examine the fundamental failure of our democratic system, and of the various political parties, to engage the vast majority of hard-working, decent, honest people.
A single episode of X Factor or The Voice gets more people voting than turned out in London this week. In Croydon and Sutton, just 3 in every 8 people thought it was worth the bother to go and put their X factor on a piece of paper.
Around 150,000 people in Croydon and Sutton voted. But more than 230,000 others chose not to do so. It is that self-silenced majority who ought to be the greatest concern for the political parties. For they have disenfranchised themselves through deep disenchantment.
Among the people who declined to exercise their democratic rights on Thursday, many did so out sense of intense distrust, dislike and absolute disgust with politicians and the whole political machine.
“The System” is failing its people, and the political parties are failing to engage.
Steve O’Connell, Croydon’s absentee councillor, is not only ignorant in his attitude to some of his Kenley residents (as well as this website), in refusing to be accountable despite his six-figure annual income from his various public offices. He is also typical of many of those who inhabit the strata of local politics.
He is a grey man, anonymous, who could walk down George Street at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and barely be recognised by the people he is supposed to serve. He’s not a household name even in his own household.
Yet from Tuesday, O’Connell will be back in City Hall as one of Boris’s few remaining trusted lieutenants, with some degree of responsibility for helping the Mayor handle London’s £14 billion budget that controls the transport system, police and a range of other essential public services in our capital.
The news that Barnet’s Brian Coleman lost his seat on the London Assembly was a triumph for campaigning hyperlocal websites in north London, and it also means that £115,000 pa O’Connell is left way ahead in the “Britain’s most-paid local councillor” stakes.
With Boris’s deputy mayor Richard Barnes also losing his Assembly seat, Johnson has limited options among the nine surviving Tory Assembly Members of whom to turn for support. So O’Connell might have (semi-)greatness thrust upon him: expect his attendance record at Croydon Town Hall to get worse, and look out for gaffes on BBC London or LBC in the coming months.
If O’Connell does become, however unwittingly, higher profile, it is unlikely to inspire greater confidence among ordinary (non-)voters in the calibre of leadership of those running our borough, city or country.
Out on the election beat these past few weeks, it has often been a case of “a plague on all your (second) houses” as far as politicians are concerned. “Nah, I ain’t going to vote, you’re all as bad as one another.”
Politicians have always been regarded with undisguised disdain, but can their reputation ever have been lower among ordinary people? MPs’ expenses scandals, tax cuts for the very richest, bankers baled out while public service jobs are cut, Granny Tax, airport queues, broken election promises, self-serving councillors’ allowances…
Why else would someone as little-known as Siobhan Benita, with her white-pure independent’s rosette and precious little campaigning money or broadcast airtime, manage to do so well against the “party machines” of the Tories, Labour, LibDems and even the worthily well-organised Greens? For those who could be bothered at all, Benita represented a vote of protest against everything that the established politicians and their parties stand for.
Yet even Benita, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP failed to inspire the majority of the London electorate to get out to vote.
At local level, the parties have not woken up to the 21st century and effective use of digital media. And it is not just for a need of more campaign funds. Some things can be done for next-to-nothing. Yet one of the London Assembly candidates in Croydon and Sutton had neither a Facebook page nor a Twitter account. It is 2012.
Much is made by candidates of “getting the message across”, yet in this important respect, all of them, regardless of their party, have failed. The 230,000 non-voters of Croydon and Sutton are proof of that.
Of course, leaflets through letterboxes and hustings have their place. But how many ordinary people are really engaged by such 19th century activities these days? The public meetings are attended by the candidates, their agents, a few activists, and their doting families. The leaflets are easily binned (hopefully recycled).
Yes, there is always degree of voter apathy, especially in local elections. But there is also a deserved amount of voter cynicism: the politicians only knock on people’s doors when they want something, their vote. They are then not seen again for a year or more, if at all.
Only when the political parties address this might they begin to win back the trust of the people who can give them what they desire above all else: power.
London Assembly elections, May 3, 2012
Croydon & Sutton: Conservative hold
C Maj: 9418 (6.12%)
Steve O’Connell* Conservative 60,152 (39.11%)
Louisa Woodley Labour 50,734 (32.98%)
Abigail Lock Liberal Democrat 21,889 (14.23%)
Winston McKenzie UK Independence Party 10,757 (6.99%)
Gordon Ross Green 10,287 (6.69%)
Turnout: 38.45% (change: -6.71%)
Steve O’Connell C 76,477 (44.08%)
Shafi Khan Lab 33,812 (19.49%)
Abigail Lock LD 32,335 (18.64%)
David Pickles UKIP 9,440 (5.44%)
Shasha Khan Green 8,969 (5.17%)
David Campanale CPA 6,910 (3.98%)
Richard Castle Eng Dem 4,186 (2.41%)
Zana Hussain Left List 1,361 (0.78%)
- Click here for the full list of results from this week’s London Assembly elections.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Croydon questions: Steve O’Connell, Conservatives (insidecroydon.com)
- Accountability? Not from Kenley’s £115,000pa councillor (insidecroydon.com)
- Latest leaflet blunder is example of flawed funding system (insidecroydon.com)