As we launch our local elections support with 10 weeks to go until the local elections, Ingrid Koehler reflects on trust and how local voting is an opportunity to build trust if we take a few simple steps.
This May, electors will be going to the polls to elect all councillors in Scotland and Wales and councillors will be elected in 147 councils in England – including all seats up for election in London. In addition, voters will be choosing 6 mayors in English councils and one city region.
They will be doing so in a time of increased polarisation while emerging from a pandemic and potentially during a time of great calamity as war and its consequences once again darken Europe.
We can recognise that we need certain levels of trust to maintain a well-functioning democracy and society, while not always knowing what to do to improve it if levels of trust are not as high as we think they could be. In the UK, levels of trust in politicians and institutions have risen slightly over the last year or so from historical lows around 2019 (see our briefing on trust and social attitudes) but we also know that some of us have lower levels of trust. Women, the young, and the poorer have less faith in politicians and their ways of working. (See our briefing on trust research).
We also know that trust in different institutions varies. Local government and councillors are often more trusted than central and perhaps more distant institutions. And it is easy to be complacent about levels of trust in local government or to blame problems on the centre, on outside forces or worse to point the fingers at each other within the local government family.
This approach risks fatally undermining trust in public institutions at all levels. This really matters. We entered the pandemic with trust in democracy falling. Recent research from Harvard shows young people, in particular, are sceptical about democracy and attracted to authoritarian modes of government.
People trust what they can see. Sometimes they have to be shown to really believe. Recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that the British public has good levels of confidence in their elections, so this is something we can build on if we choose.
But high levels of distrust in elections, such as in the US, can bleed over. Like in the UK, American elections are locally administered and it can be hard to get the message across efficiently that voter registration and the electoral process are secure and trustworthy. However, just because it can be hard to communicate does not mean it’s not worth trying. A few simple steps and subtle changes to what we already do can show make local elections the bedrock of a healthy relationship between citizen and state.
As we head into elections we need to show that:
Elections are fair, transparent and secure.
The most secure method of voting is hand-marked paper ballots. But it’s worth re-iterating and explaining why that is and explaining how both hand counting and electronic counting (such as in Scotland) have the appropriate checks and balances to ensure the right outcome. This is why in the past and this year, we’ll be talking to local government professionals about the process and the best way to share that knowledge with the public.
Voters have the power and agency to decide.
While some wards and seats across the country are unlikely to change control, many wards are won and lost with only a handful of votes. That means that any individual vote can really make the difference. For people to invest in institutions and democracy, they must believe that they have a stake in it. We don’t often show how close elections are because election results are often poorly communicated. That’s why in the past we’ve shared our top tips for elections communications including how to present results.
These elections really matter.
Almost everything that makes a place a good place to live in our everyday lives is either under direct control or influence of local government. Why bother to vote or trust local institutions if you think it won’t make a difference? At LGIU, we know how important local government is to the welfare of the communities they serve. That’s why we invest so much into supporting and celebrating elections and the work of local government from building trust to helping candidates stay safe through our personal safety and conflict resolution training. We’re also there to help new councillors get ready to take on their new roles through briefings, training and support.
At LGIU, we’re not just a membership body for local government, we’re a local democracy charity. In these turbulent times, we need more democracy, not less – and we believe that a democracy that’s closer to the people is a healthier one.