John's Jottings for December 2006

John Ward

Please note: these Jottings are purely personal comment, and do not necessarily or directly represent the policy of either the Conservative Party or the Conservative Group on Medway Council.

The Cross in the Box

For whom are we voting when we place our cross (or crosses) on the ballot paper at election time?

At a general election, it is for the one candidate we believe is the best to do the job. It could be for purely political party reasons, but many electors will vote for the person they know, possibly regardless of party affiliation. This direct "one vote for one representative" is probably one of the main reasons why turnout is generally high in general elections.

When it comes to local elections, though, turnout tends to be much lower—perhaps only half the percentage, unless the two events happen to be on the same day (which doesn't occur in Medway, by the way). In one Medway ward turnout has been only 17% in recent years, and there are other wards with figures that aren't very much higher.

So, is there a solution? I don't know for sure, but multiple-member wards—though having some benefits—are clouding the issue from the public-at-large's point of view, as they (i.e. you) cannot easily relate what is happening to one or other of the elected members in their ward. In my own ward, for example, there are three of us, each of us with a different personal reputation from the others. This muddies the waters somewhet in the public's perception, and I can understand that.

My recommendation is: all wards should be single-member wards (at least on the urban side of the river) to re-establish that direct and unambiguous link between performance and the individual elected member. This would need more wards, but the same number of polling stations (which, after all, didn't change when the number of wards reduced in 2003) and the vote counting would be quicker for each ward on Polling Day (and night!) and election costs would probably be a little lower overall.

I personally believe this would be worth trying, not least because it would put pressure on all elected members to work fully at their jobs as councillors if they are to have any real chance of keeping their seats after the following election. As matters stand, it is all too easy to lumber one member in each ward with most of the work, so that the other(s) can cruise along, taking the same allowances and having the same status, but perhaps being unworthy of their seats: passengers, in effect.

I am aware that this is not an unusual scenario, including here in Medway, though far from being universal. My own group has been mixed on this in the past, though much better since the 2003 local elections here in Medway. Even so, on my own patch, going from a two-member ward to a much bigger three-member ward resulted in a 3·5% drop in turnout from 32·77% in 2000 to 29·2% in 2003, which I think exemplifies this whole issue. Looking at turnout figures for the 35 wards in 2000 and the 22 wards in 2003 gives some useful clues as well, though any decent analysis of these would be too lengthy (and probably rather tedious!) to include here. It's all on this website anyway, for those who want to check for themselves.

Now, I am very much aware that there will not be another ward boundary review for several years yet; but when there is, I am seriously considering putting up a case for single-member warding throughout Medway, and I shall be looking for support from you, dear reader.

If you agree with my reasoning (though accepting, as I do, that it is just one ingredient in the whole area of turnout and electorate engagement) then I shall need you to add your weight to the whole debate on this, when the time comes—probably starting in six to eight years from now, though it could be sooner. This gives plenty of opportunity in the meantime to think about what I am proposing.

Overall, despite the arguments against (and accepting that there is no hundred-percent-perfect answer anyway), I am leaning very strongly in favour of proposing single-member wards in Medway when the next boundary review takes place. My aim remains, as it always has, better representation of you, and better standards of working for you. That's my "bottom line", which is why I am prepared to head in a completely different direction from my own party if necessary, because I serve you and your interests over and above those of my party—something that I know will come as no surprise to anyone who has known me for a while!

Next time: Looking East