England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Building trust in democracy


Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

With the local elections taking place today, Dr Jonathan Carr-West says: get the processes right and the results will follow, especially when seeking to ensure faith in the system of democracy.

By the time you read this polls will have opened and voting will be under way in the 2018 local elections. In the space between predictions of what might happen and analysis of what did, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the mechanics of these elections and of what they represent within our ongoing conversation about democracy.

For many people today is all about sheer hard work. An army of council employees across the country will have been burning the midnight oil to prepare for election day and will be putting in immense shifts today to make sure everything goes smoothly. Many readers of this magazine will be among them and they all deserve our thanks and appreciation. And of course the team at LGiU will be working through the night to bring you results as they happen.

As Peter Stanyon of the Association of Electoral Administrators told me in a recent interview for the LGiU fortnightly podcast, elections depend on thousands of different practical elements any one of which can go wrong.

There is something fascinating and salutary about the way in which the exercise of democracy as a high minded political ideal depends on a whole series of mundane actions: someone getting out of bed half an hour early to open up a polling station, someone remembering to pack the right type of pencil sharpener to keep the voting pencils working.

When you consider the complexity of the logistical operation it is impressive that things rarely go wrong at any significant scale.

And this is vital because we need people to have faith in the robustness of the system now more than ever. Elections are not the be all and end all of democracy but they are a crucial element of it: a necessary though not a sufficient condition for the democratic process.

But that process is being tested. This pressure has multiple sources. Some are long-term and structural, rooted in the limitations of democratic states to respond to the challenges of a globalised hyper connected world. Others are more immediate such as the sort of interference in electoral processes highlighted by the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

There is also a challenge to the way in which we talk to each other about politics as social media replaces traditional media institutions as many people’s main source of information and as we move away from large scale, open conversations to multiple, closed conversations generally with people who already share our world view. This creates a polarised political discourse in which the virtues of democracy, essentially a system for agreeing to disagree, struggle to make themselves felt.

How we rebuild trust in democratic institutions and in the process of democracy is one of the great challenges of our age. The answers are far from obvious and success is by no means assured.

But if building trust is difficult, losing it is all too easy. One way in which it can be easily degraded is through problems with the electoral process.

We are fortunate the quiet virtues of a system that can seem archaic protect us from the worst abuses: you can’t hack pencils and paper. But other aspects of the system are potentially open to interference, especially the register which is electronic.

Trials of voter photo ID in five parts of the country this year have been unheralded but are also significant. We are lucky in this country to benefit from the efficient administration of elections.

That is not enough to rebuild trust in democracy but it is a vital foundation that we have to preserve.

As I think about the elections today, I am of course interested in who wins and what it means. Politics matters. But most of all I care the system works, that people have free and easy access to the vote and that they go out and use it.

If we focus on the big picture, the process matters far more than the result. And that is another thing to thank local government for.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.



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