Local Government PR: Waking the voters up to local elections - Local councils are using PR to boost low election turnouts, and extending the remit of their PR chiefs but communications alone cannot restore confidence in the democratic process

This week is Local Democracy Week. Under the auspices of the Local Government Association some 250-odd local authorities up and down the country have been engaged in activities such as Q&A sessions, roadshows and public consultation as a means of reaching out to their electorate.

This week is Local Democracy Week. Under the auspices of the Local

Government Association some 250-odd local authorities up and down the

country have been engaged in activities such as Q&A sessions, roadshows

and public consultation as a means of reaching out to their

electorate.



There is a very clear reason why they have gone to such lengths, and for

those enthusiastic about participative democracy it is an uncomfortable

one: voter apathy. The average turn-out during last month’s council

elections was about 30 per cent. Not much of a mandate.



This failure to galvanise the public has led a number of authorities to

reassess their PR strategy. In recent weeks both West Sussex and

Middlesbrough councils have initiated searches for heads of

communications who will be briefed to think creatively about boosting

election turnout.



’Encouraging people to vote at local elections is one of the biggest PR

challenges,’ says Middlesbrough Council leader Ken Walker.



’Councils have to face the challenge of building up positive

relationships with their communities in a planned and sustained way.

This means making people feel they have a real stake in choices and

decisions about their community - as well as keeping people informed

about what the council is doing and why.’



’What we are saying about local democracy is that voting once every four

years or however often is not what it’s all about,’ says LGA press

officer Michael Katz. ’Councils have to be able to show their

communities that they can and do make a difference to their lives.’



But as the voting figures show, many authorities have plainly failed to

convince the public that this is the case. One argument has it that the

Conservative government’s policy of stripping powers away from local

government has served to erode interest in voting.



It is a view supported by Colin Rallings, professor at the Local

Government Chronicle Election Centre, University of Plymouth. Rallings

concedes that PR plays a useful ’minor role’ in keeping an election in

the public consciousness, but asserts that more fundamental issues about

the nature of local government must be addressed in order to restore

voter confidence in the democratic process.



Katz concurs: ’There is obviously a PR job to be done. But there is only

so much you can do in PR terms before you start having to address policy

issues.’



Fundamental issues are currently being addressed in a programme to

modernise local government announced in February this year by Deputy

Prime Minister John Prescott and Local Government Minister Hilary

Armstrong. Among the proposals set out for discussion are changes to the

days and ways of voting, elected mayors, a strengthening of councils’

community leadership powers and polling the public on how well councils

deliver local services.



In achieving the latter, the Government is thought to favour those

quintessentially New Labour devices, focus groups and citizens’ juries,

as means for councils to improve standards through feedback from their

constituents. And forward-thinking councils are extending the remit of

their PR chiefs to organising public consultation. West Sussex’s

communications head, for example, will be tasked with commissioning

opinion polls and convening meetings to sound out public views on

services and generate interest in the council.



A handful of pioneering authorities have already sought to combine

polling station experimentation with communications activities as a

means of boosting turnout.



Rother District Council doubled turnout in one area from 12 to 24 per

cent by switching a polling station from a pre-school playgroup building

to a Budgens supermarket. Croydon Borough Council set up polling

stations in two branches of Tesco and supported the elections with a PR

drive.



Both authorities received substantial amounts of media coverage for

their innovative efforts, which undoubtedly helped boost the number of

voters.



Although Croydon’s turnout was down (in keeping with elsewhere) the

strategy was deemed a success because at 37.6 per cent it recorded the

highest percentage of residents voting in London.



To some observers, the low turnout in London was a surprise given that

the capital’s electorate was also voting for whether or not it wanted an

elected mayor. The fact that the three main political parties supported

the idea may partly explain the low turnout. Voters felt little need to

influence what they saw as a foregone conclusion.



’Having been very successful in marginalising the No campaign, there was

very little to debate,’ says Jonny Popper, a director of Neil Stewart

Associates which was given a PR brief by the All Party Yes for London

Campaign.



Stephan Shakespeare, policy and political strategy adviser to

prospective mayoral candidate Jeffrey Archer, thinks that PR will be

very important when the elections take place because there will be a

huge focus on ’personalities’.



’PR is invaluable, but only once you have something to say,’ he

adds.



’At the moment we are developing policies related to London’s problems

which we are not going to be able to talk about until much later.’



Presentation is important, but councils and mayors will have to prove by

their deeds that they are worthy of the votes. Hand-in-hand with this

there is a strong case for profound changes in the way we vote. The

chance to vote by phone, in supermarkets, shopping centres or by post

could dramatically increase participation.



PR can help, but changes to the practicalities of voting may have a more

profound effect on turnout.



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