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
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
’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
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
Both authorities received substantial amounts of media coverage for
their innovative efforts, which undoubtedly helped boost the number of
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
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
’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.