As the first England local election results began to roll in this morning, it’s already looking like the predicted collapse of Tory support is going to be even worse than expected. We won’t know the final tally until later tonight, but already much is being made of the loss of top Conservative target seats – Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Medway which have fallen to Labour, and Windsor and Maidenhead, which has been snatched by the Liberal Democrats. No doubt many more will follow, as the predictions overnight have indicated that the Conservatives could lose as many as 1,000 local council seats.
On hearing the early news Labour Leader Kier Starmer rushed to Medway in Kent, where he posed for a quick baby photo and, in his uncontrollable excitement, misquoted Michael Caine badly: “You didn’t just get it over the line, you blew the doors off!” he told local party workers.
Lib Dem lead Ed Davey was equally ebullient over in Windsor, where he described his party’s victory there as “ground-breaking”, which is probably as accurate as it is sad. For his part our Prime Minister was already braced for a battering and, when doorstepped this morning, fell back on the familiar “it’s disappointing but there’s still a long way to go”, adding of course that however catastrophic the day is going to turn out to be, he’s still going to “deliver on the people’s priorities.”
Mr Sunak reiterated that these are apparently: “Halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping the boats.”
OK, it may have been the early hours of the day, but this still sounded like the script of an encyclopaedia salesman desperately bored with his job, and goes a long way to accounting for today’s lacklustre election results.
Even at this early stage of declarations, the damning statistic emerging is that, whilst the Tories have lost countless votes, the winning Labour candidates don’t seemed to have gained many, which is pointing to the numbers that no-one likes to discuss these days at election time – voter turnout, or the lack of it.
A few senior Tories are already blaming ‘voter apathy’, and of course ‘staying at home’ has long been cited as a mechanism at local election time for even the most loyal of party members to voice their discontent and explain conveniently why so few have turned up.
However the parties cut it today, the unavoidable fact is that participation in elections of any kind has been in steep decline for decades, with the majority of our legislators in place with highly questionable voter mandates. Inevitably one starts asking the question – if you are in place with the declared support of just a small portion of your constituents, what right do you have to make decisions that will affect the whole of your constituency?
In fairness this isn’t so much the fault of our elected representatives, but an electoral system that for a very long time now just hasn’t been fit for purpose. All sorts of reasons and excuses get thrown around for why UK citizens have become so disenfranchised, but there’s an understandable reluctance to consider whether or not it might be the system itself that’s at fault. I say ‘system’, but we don’t actually have a singular voting system in the United Kingdom, rather a confusing and jumbled mess of five systems. In England and Wales councils are elected under plurality rule (more commonly known as ‘first past the post’), in Scotland and Northern Ireland they use proportional representation (also known as single transferable vote) whilst Scottish parliament, Welsh and London assembly members are elected under a mixed member system. Just to add to the confusion, directly elected mayors in England and Police, plus Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, are voted for under yet another mechanism known as the preferential majoritarian system, or supplementary vote.
All of that tells you that we’ve yet to find and agree upon a voting system that actually works, so it’s little surprise that most of us are less than excited about the prospect of participating in such questionable rituals. Even the most ardent electoral reformists are divided on the best way forward. This is a shame because local elections in particular matter. These aren’t vague endorsements of national figures who take your vote once every five years and then head off to do whatever their party bids of them, or whatever they personally feel is in our country’s best interests. Local elections elect local people who will be controlling local matters – bin collections, burials, libraries, leisure facilities, schools, social services, green spaces and housing development policies. Local councillors also take a leading role in the development and scrutiny of critical local infrastructure projects which will impact significantly on your locality and general standard of life and wellbeing.
When one looks at the Catholic Church’s teaching on our moral duties relating to voting, it has often seemed to me that we’ve collated a somewhat mixed and vague bag of principles and recommendations that ultimately have left voting decisions to the individual. But as time and electoral decline have moved on, statements on voting found in the Catechism and the speeches and addresses of recent pontiffs on political obligations have pulled into sharp focus not only the merits and requirement of voting, but also the reasons why increasingly people are declining to do so.
For instance, on 30th March 2006 Pope Benedict XVI gave a an address to members of the European People’s Party in which he defined certain moral goods as being ‘non-negotiables’ when it comes to the common good – in particular he cited – (1) “[the] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; (2) recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilisation, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role; [and] (3) the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.”
“These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith,” said Benedict, “they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity.”
For Benedict these three principles are morally unequivocal, and their violation can never be justified by circumstances; all other social principles are therefore ‘negotiable’, as they don’t involve a single solution or intrinsic moral good (cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1908-1909).
The view of Benedict is in sharp contrast to the increasingly vague and inclusive language of modern British politics, which – regardless of the party presenting it – is invariably framed in whatever language and moral parameters the speaker thinks will appease or attract the largest number of voters. Ironically it’s that very obsession with diversity and inclusivity that has diluted any commonality of opinion in modern British society. Again, it was Pope Benedict XVI who first highlighted the dangers of this modern cult of Relativism, where the individual’s perceptions and prejudices have become the centre of their interaction with the wider world. In a society where ‘what I believe’ is the only principle of importance the whole concept of majority evaporates, so it’s hardly surprising if today’s local election results will deliver a yet another record low in voter participation.
Prime Minister Sunak’s weary comments this morning that he’s committed to delivering “the people’s priorities” illustrates the folly of chasing the zeitgeist. A far more effective strategy to inspire the nation and revive democratic participation would be to follow the advice of Benedict and start talking about the universal moral principles that might unite us as a human family, rather than vague platitudes and unpleasant and highly divisive mantras like Prime Minister Sunak’s morally vacuous ‘stop the boats’ campaign.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian