Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Use it or lose it

On Thursday, electors in Northumberland and Durham will go to the polls to choose the members of the unwanted new unitary councils, due to take over from our existing local authorities in 2009.

Except, of course, most of us won’t do any such thing. On past form, around two thirds of those eligible to vote will decide that they would much rather watch paint dry or grass grow, go to the pub, or settle down on the sofa with EastEnders and one of those “made for sharing” bags of crisps that are such a stimulating challenge to get through on your own.

In fact, I’ve probably committed journalistic suicide by mentioning this great non-event in my first line. Let’s face it, the contest has hardly set the media ablaze, has it? Despite the exciting new start represented by the fact that my new authority is apparently to be called “The Council of the County of Northumberland”, to distinguish it from the useless old Northumberland County Council that is heading for the scrap heap.

I know this because it is printed on the documentation accompanying my ballot paper. Yes, I’ve had it for more than a week. Because many elections ago, when I was going to be away on business, a politically active girlfriend arranged for me to have a postal vote. I thought it was a one-off, but they have kept turning up ever since.

The ballot paper comes in an envelope marked “Open Immediately – Do Not Delay”, encouraging the voter to get on with it. Which is a bit anti-democratic, since at the time it arrived I had only heard from one of the candidates, the Liberal Democrat. I still haven’t received the Labour manifesto. Though, if they read this column, I suppose they might have concluded that they would be wasting paper and ink.

Why are we so uninterested in elections (national and European as well as local)? The stock answers seem to be “They can’t change anything”, “They’re all the same” and “They’re just in it for what they can get”. There is certainly an element of truth in all of these. Our MPs have voted to transfer most of their powers to Brussels, yet somehow forgotten to reflect this in a commensurate reduction in their own numbers, pay and perks.

It would be hard to imagine anything more grotesque than the Labour councillors who helped to railroad through the new unitary authorities, against the clearly expressed wishes of the people, then started demanding compensation for loss of office when their own system of women-only shortlists prevented them from standing for election.

Indeed, given that the whole objective of the new structure was to entrench Labour power in the region, there is a strong temptation to urge you to go out and vote for any other party. But that’s not going to be my point. I just want you to make the effort to vote, whoever it is for.

If you ignore these elections, you will have no right to moan when they send inspectors round to demand entry to your house to assess it for a move up the council tax bands; or bombard you with yet more infuriating glossy magazines; or approve a wind farm in your back garden; or announce that your bin will in future be emptied only once a month in the name of “saving the planet”; or use laws designed to combat terrorism to undertake covert surveillance of your family to determine whether your children are eligible to attend the school of your choice.

People fought long and hard for your right to vote. And, as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried”. Value your vote and, as they used to say of rural branch lines: use it or lose it. I’ve already cast mine.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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