Local Election 2014: Why should I vote?

Democracy eh? Tsk.

Overcoming voter apathy is an enormous challenge – and not just among young people. It’s hard enough getting people to vote in general elections, so why on earth should you bother in the local election, and what are you voting for anyway?

West Hampstead is undergoing enormous change – the growth over the next 10 years will outpace anything seen in 100 years. The council plays an enormous role in shaping this. It also controls lots of areas that affect your day-to-day life: rubbish, schools, parking, social care, and of course council tenant services.

But lets start at the beginning:

I don’t understand local politics

We live in the London Borough of Camden. Like all London boroughs, it has a council, which is like a mini-parliament of elected politicians and unelected civil servants. There’s a Cabinet, there are backbenchers (some active, some less so), there are cross-party scrutiny committees that focus on detail, and there’s a speaker of sorts in the Mayor who chairs full council meetings. Councillors are the elected politicians, while council officers are the unelected civil servants of Camden. Read more.

As we elect an MP for the House of Commons, we also elect councillors for the council. The constituencies are called “wards” and are relatively small, with populations around 8,000. Each ward has three councillors. Which ward am I?

As at the national level, the party with the most seats controls the council. In 2010, in a direct reversal of the national situation, Labour took control of Camden from a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. The leader of the party is thus the de facto leader of the council. At the moment, that’s Sarah Hayward, who (just as David Cameron is the MP for Witney), is also a councillor for King’s Cross.

The council today: Labour (30 seats), Lib Dems (13 seats), Conservatives (10 seats), and Green (1 seat).

Meet your Councillors Poster APRIL 2013

But what does the council do?

The council is responsible for a wide range of activities: social housing, rubbish collection, state schools (eg, Kingsgate, Beckford, Hampstead School), planning (both large and small), licensing, social care, roads and much more. Different groups of people will have very different levels of exposure to council services.

The council doesn’t set income tax or VAT, so its most immediate impact on your pocket is through council tax. However, council tax makes up only 10 percent of Camden’s £858 million budget. Central government provides most of Camden’s funding (62 percent). Read more.

Doesn’t sound like it matters who I vote for

Think again. The council has to allocate that sizeable budget (which is shrinking under central government cuts). Different parties will prioritise different services. Some council services must be provided, such as enough school places, others are discretionary. It’s the council’s role to decide which discretionary services are expanded or simply maintainted in times of budget pressures is the role of council.

To give a simple practical example – a council might choose to cut rubbish collections to once a fortnight in order to release funds to continue with day care centres for adults with mental health problems. Or it might not.

Whatever grounds you choose to vote on – personal interest, the sort of society you want to live in, or party ideology – your council vote is at least as important as the vote for your MP. It will have a huge bearing on what happens in West Hampstead over the next four years, and could have an immediate impact on you if you need to contact your councillor to complain, or for support.

My vote won’t make a difference

People vote for particular candidates for a wide range of reasons. How you balance a party/ideology vote against a personal vote is up to you – but at least take a moment to think about that. Your vote does make a difference. The margins are thin in local elections, and the person you help elect may end up on the planning committee and be voting for or against developments such as West Hampstead Square. Perhaps the person who just missed out because you didn’t vote might have come to a different decision and swung the vote. Such things really do hang on your X in the ballot box.

Who am I voting for – there are so many names!?

Camden is made up of 18 wards. Each ward has three councillors. Often all three councillors in a ward represent the same party. This is because each voter has three votes, and people tend to vote for all three candidates from the party they want. This is even more pronounced when local and general elections coincide, as happened in 2010. But there’s no rule that you have to do this – you can vote for candidates for three different parties if you want. Social media makes politicians more accessible, so you may find you like politicians from different parties.

The three main parties would expect to field three candidates in each ward. Smaller parties might be more selective. Candidates can also be independent.

The wards that make up “Greater” West Hampstead are West Hampstead, Fortune Green, Kilburn and Swiss Cottage (Swiss Cottage straddles the Finchley Road). West Hampstead and Fortune Green both have three Lib Dem councillors, Kilburn has three Labour councillors and Swiss Cottage has three Conservative councillors. If you don’t know which ward you’re in, check out our map. You can also see the results from 2010.

But nationally, I vote based on the party leader more than the MP. Is this the same?

Party leadership is far less relevant at the local level. The next general election may be portrayed as Cameron v Miliband v Clegg, but I doubt many of you could name the three party leaders at the council level (Sarah Hayward (Lab), Keith Moffitt (LD), Claire Louise-Leyland (Con), as you asked).

Your local councillors tend to be more accessible than your local MP, and can often deal with issues much faster, so sometimes party politics goes out of the window and you’ll want to vote for a councillor you personally like and you know is effective. That’s why it’s worth getting to know who your candidates are.

What about tactical voting?

Ah, you want “Advanced Local Elections”. Tactical voting always plays a part in elections, but the lower the turnout the riskier it is because it’s harder to gauge how others will vote. To be blunt, in a local election around here, I’d vote for the candidate and/or party that you would like to see elected. At the ward level, the person matters more than the party; at the borough level the party is important. As before, it’s up to you how you want to balance those when you vote – you may often find that the two are aligned.

But I want to give the Conservatives/Lib Dems/Labour (delete as appopriate) a good kicking based on national politics?

Local elections are often seen as a bellwether for the parties’ popularity nationally, but bear in mind that you’re electing a council for the next four years that will have a huge say in how more than £800 million is spent where you live.

Who can vote?

All UK, Irish and Commonwealth citizens and EU citizens who are resident in the UK can vote in the local elections. If you’re eligible but not registered to vote then you can register up to May 6th. Here’s the form. This is likely to apply only if you’ve moved house relatively recently, otherwise you should be on the electoral register.

Can’t vote on the day?  Vote by postal vote or by proxy (don’t leave it too late – the deadlines are May 7th and May 14th respectively).

OK, I’m hooked – what now?

Why not read the parties’ short sales pitches? Then check out the big issues. Or go straight to your ward page and find out about the candidates: West Hampstead, Fortune Green, Kilburn, Swiss Cottage.

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