Making elections matter

The Edinburgh City Centre By-election should have been a unique occasion.  It is probably the only genuinely 5-way marginal council seat in Scotland. Add to the pot an independent candidate with a populist anti-trams stance and it should have been electric. After all, voters often say that they don’t think their vote will make a difference.  This was not the case here. The outcome could have hung on a single vote in any number of ways.  Not only that, but success for 4 of the 6 candidates would have spelled the end of the Lib Dem – SNP Council’s casting-vote majority.

In other words, it had all the ingredients of an election to engage the public. So why was the turnout so dismal?  Fewer than 1 in 4 voters cast a vote.  And that is not taking account of the large number of city centre residents who are not even registered to vote.

Of course, there’s the general malaise of disaffection with politics. But, to add to that, the City Council made matters worse in three ways.

First of all, the timing was appalling.  The election could quite easily have been held back until late September meaning that it would not be slap bang in the middle of the world’s largest arts festival – remember, this was city centre ward, not a suburban contest, far from the madding crowds.  A later date would have taken it out of the holiday season and ensured that students, who make up a large part of the city centre population, were around.

Secondly, the choice of polling stations was poor.  I stood for a while at a polling station on Easter Road, to which voters in Abbeyhill were directed.  Their normal polling place of Abbeyhill Primary School was, quite rightly, not available as autumn term had started only the day before.  But Easter Road is not even in the ward.  I spent more time explaining to passers-by that, as residents in Leith Walk Ward, they were not expected to vote on this occasion.

Thirdly, the City Administration’s decision to back a Tory motion earlier this year to ban lamppost placards has come home to roost.  Robbed of the one visible reminder that there was actually an election on, voters simply stayed away.

It is customary for politicians to wring their hands about falling turnout but do nothing.  I shall be seeking to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.