Bristol mayor 'may struggle in face of low voter turnout'
The low voter turnout for the Bristol mayoral election may undermine the contest, and is likely to make the job of the successful candidate difficult.
That is the view of two lecturers from the University of Bristol and Goldsmiths, University of London.
Dr David Sweeting, lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Bristol, described the 27.92 per cent turnout as “troubling”.
Speaking to This is Bristol, Dr Sweeting said: “It’s hugely disappointing that people don’t vote, although individually I understand the reasons they might not want to that, i.e. they think their vote might not make a difference or change what the council can actually do.
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“I think the matter of who runs the council is a very important decision, so it’s kind of troubling.
“But my heart was lifted by the fact the turnout was higher than in the referendum [the turnout for the May referendum was 24 per cent]. It looks like almost everyone who voted in the mayoral election voted for a PCC.”
Turning to the potential consequences of a low voter turnout, Dr Sweeting said: “The lower the turnout the less it seems they [the winning candidate] have a mandate. Exactly how low it has to go to not have a mandate is an interesting question, but I don’t think we are there yet.”
He added: “I don’t think low voter turnout undermines the winner but the whole basis of the system. It undermines the nature of the contest itself.
“Thousands across Bristol are voting but if it goes much lower it calls into question the system. How low can you go? I don’t think we are there yet.”
Dr Simon Griffiths, lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, echoed this. “There’s a feeling that this was not done properly, this introduction of a new layer of democracy. The mayor will have to prove that they are effective and can give the people of Bristol what they want, rather than just the same local government.
“If they can do that they are likely to be successful. But if they don’t come to be a figurehead for people’s concerns, they may struggle.”
Dr Griffiths also warned: “The big problem for the new mayor is one of legitimacy. He is going to have to prove himself and define what the role is for the local community. So there’s a problem convincing people they should be doing the job.”
Turning to the potential explanations for the low voter turnout, Dr Griffiths said: “A lot of people just did not know enough about it. That’s partly the fault of the Government for not informing people enough. People are not quite sure what the mayor does, and Britain does not have the same history of mayors as, say, the US.
“There’s also a sense that over the past 10 years or so people are fed up of politicians, and introducing more of them is not a good idea.”
Bristol lecturer Dr Sweeting agreed: “Lack of knowledge is a real problem, especially with the PCC elections.
“The Government did not fund leafleting to every household for the PCC elections. There was no groundswell of opinion saying ‘we need a PCC’, it was an idea that suddenly came into action.”
Dr Sweeting went on: “One side of me says this is voter apathy, but the other side of me thinks people voted by not voting because they reject the system.
“When you ask people whether they are going to vote around 50 per cent say yes, then when it comes to it less than a third does so. Why they say they will and then don’t is an interesting question. Perhaps people want to be seen to be taking part.”
Asked whether more could have been done to make voting easier for the people of Bristol, the lecturer said: “New Labour said they were going to try to open up voting [e.g. by allowing voting at weekends; having polling stations at supermarkets] but none of those methods made a massive difference.
“It would be easier for, say, me to have voted over the weekend. It would be nice if you could vote more easily, but my suspicion is we would not attract more people to vote, it would just be people who already vote voting in a different way.
“But it was not a good idea to have the elections in November, when it’s cold and dark.”