Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rain or shine, turnout is just the barometer

There's a routine which plays out at every polling station in the land and which never fails to amuse me. It features a polling agent from one of the parties entering a polling station and when he or she returns, all the other polling agents from different parties cluster round. "Well, what's the figure?", one will say, while they all wait with bated breath. "Eleven point seven per cent" comes the reply. "That's low", "Yeah, eight point nine at Bogend Primary an hour ago". And so the discussion continues.

Turnout is a big issue amongst the anoraks on polling day. In 2007 it was around 53% across Scotland and is anticipated to be anywhere between 25% and 45% on Thursday, depending on whom you listen to, but with postal voters in the ascendancy the figure on the day in any one polling station may tell you little.

I have an issue with people who assert that a high turnout is good for democracy. It's not the figure which is important, but the reason why it is high or low. Turnout, after all, is just a barometer on people's willingness to participate in the democratic process. If we made voting compulsory, as some advocate, this would not in itself instil more confidence in our politicians, but would merely mask people's discontent. When the local and Holyrood elections were held on the same day, the resulting increased turnout at the local election was not a vote of confidence in local politicians - it just meant some people voted in the local elections because they were going to the polling station anyway.

When attendance at a football match is low, it's not the fans who are blamed for apathy, but the teams for offering little prospect of entertainment. When a film flops at the cinema, it's not because people can't be bothered venturing out in the rain. If you run a market stall and no-one buys anything, perhaps it's because you're what offering is not what people want, and so it is with politics.

If we want people to come back to our political market stalls, we need to offer the punters what they want, and more critically, provide an after-sales service which encourages them to come back again next time.

There are two types of non-voter; those who really are apathetic about the whole political process and those who would vote if there was someone standing they perceived as worth voting for. To distinguish between these, I would advocate an extra option on every ballot form - the often suggested 'none of the above'. If this non-candidate is elected, the seat remains vacant - and allows people to see what it's like not to have someone to represent them (maybe the difference wouldn't be noticeable in some cases). If a sufficient number of such vacancies are returned on a council, a full rerun of the election would be triggered. Only in this case would I support compulsory voting.

I believe that people get the politicians they deserve. If they vote for numpties, then don't be surprised if numpties get in. If politicians promise the earth and fail to deliver, who is to blame if they are then re-elected? People often tell me they are voting for X to keep out Y; that is not a positive choice and voting for 'none of the above' would work equally well as well as being a more transparent representation of voter intentions. It would concentrate the mind wonderfully, both of those standing for office as well as those going into the polling booths, and you never know, it may encourage more people to get involved in politics to help fill the perceived void.

So if turnout is low on Thursday, we shouldn't blame the voters who have failed to turn out, but the politicians who have failed to deliver.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Number crunching

A week to go and into the last lap. I had planned a stall in Bonnyrigg for market day, but even my enthusiasm for politics wanes a little when it's belting rain and blowing a gale. However, I did go out and deliver the last 300 cards through letterboxes and noted in passing that none of my opponents had ventured out to the market either, so a no-score draw there.

I've now finished canvassing - having covered just under half the ward in five weeks. Last night was my first "Sorry son, I've goat a postal and ah've already voted", a sure sign of diminishing returns for effort this late in the game. However, week of poll cards have now arrived and are ready to go out to targeted addresses in the last few days before polling.

The SNP have now realised that this is a STV poll and their second leaflet rectifies the problems of the first, even to suggesting a first preference split between their candidates depending on which polling station you go to. Thanks, but I'll not be taking your advice. They've also cottoned on to Labour's spurious claiming of the credit for the new Lasswade High School - the Labour leaflet incidentally using Midlothian copyrighted photos of the school without permission, to add insult to injury.

It's still difficult to say how this ward will go. Last time, Labour polled four and a half times my first preference votes, and the SNP nearly three times, so it's a big gap I need to make up. Assuming I get the 100 or so transfers I got last time from the Socialists (who aren't standing), the ratios are still 3.9 and 2.5 respectively.

However, turnout will no doubt play a big hand in the result. In 2007 the turnout in the Bonnyrigg ward was 56.38%. The most people seem to be predicting this time is 45%, as the Holyrood election is not taking place the same day. That would represent a drop of a fifth in the number of those going to the polls.

However, a drop in turnout will undoubtedly affect Labour more than the Nats, given the way the Labour administration has run the council and the disaffection their councillors here seem to have attracted.

Assuming the drop in turnout affects Labour and SNP equally, but without affecting my vote (which is much more likely to hold up), the ratios would then fall to 3.1 and 2.0 respectively, which is looking much more promising, but with a bias in lower turnout towards affecting Labour more, I would imagine a more realistic ratio of 2.5 for each. Given each will get at least one councillor elected in this three member ward, they will need at least double my vote to take that third spot.

That makes transfers all the more important, and anyone I've spoken to on the doorsteps who have said they are voting for someone else, seemed willing to give me a second or third preference. Add to the mix some of the Labour vote going to Jackie Aitchison, and the election seems wide open. My guess is I need 1,000 first preferences to win, from the 'notional' 750 last time (including Socialist transfers). With our much stronger campaign this time, and my much higher profile in the community, I'd say that is very much achievable. A week tomorrow we will know, and I'll be watching the weather forecast for Thursday very carefully.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Canvassing update

With less than three weeks to go to polling, I've now been canvassing for three weeks. Response on the doorsteps has been magnificent, though I'm still in my 'core' areas. That will change next week when I move into opposition territory. However, even in those areas I've already been doorknocking with questionnaires a year ago and the reception then was surprisingly good.

Labour are canvassing like there's no tomorrow (maybe there isn't for them) - certainly a lot more than in past years, so it looks like they recognise they are in real danger of losing a seat here. However, the impression I get from people they've canvassed is that with two councillors, it's a bit late to start talking to their constituents now. I'm also getting a lot of non too complimentary comments about Derek Milligan on the doorsteps. I do wonder if the tide is turning on him.

SNP leaflet advising people to spoil their vote
The SNP campaign is a dog's breakfast. Leaflets appeared late - and instruct people to vote for their candidates with two 'X's. Even discounting this, they haven't directed people to split their first preference votes between the two candidates, which will result in Bob Constable getting nearly all of them and Thomas Munro going out early on in the count.

Anyway, I must get on. More doors to knock on ...

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Missing the bus

On Monday, First Bus announced the closure of its Dalkeith depot, the withdrawal of nearly all of its services in Midlothian and the loss of up to 200 jobs.

There had been rumblings of service cutbacks in an earlier statement but I don't think anyone locally was expecting anything on this scale. The job losses are a particularly hard blow in the current economic climate, but I'm sure many more people face the risk of not being able to get to their work and have no alternative except perhaps to take two or more journeys via Cameron Toll or the city centre using a Lothian bus service - if indeed their community will now be served at all.

And this is why the cuts will hit so hard. Faced with unbeatable competition on routes run by publicly owned Lothian, First has retreated to cross county routes and those which connect communities not served directly by buses going to and from the city - the 141/142 being the main route, but others such as the 92A which currently provides the only direct link between Bonnyrigg and Gorebridge.

I have a certain sympathy for First's predicament - public transport has been a low on the SNP Scottish Government's priority list and bus operators like First will not run services at a loss over a prolonged period. However, First is not entirely blameless.

In 2008 I travelled to Falkirk to meet with Paul Thomas, Managing Director of First Scotland East. This followed critical comments I had made in the local press about First's apparent lack of a strategy in Midlothian. Our meeting was cordial, but I put across a number of points which although accepted at the time, were sadly not taken on board (if you forgive the pun).

Firstly, I said that passengers need to know that a service they intend to take when applying for a job will still be around in a few months' or years' time. Apart from the 141, First has continually re-routed, removed and introduced services - initially in a predatory manner designed to take passengers from Lothian routes. The ill-fated X77 ran in competition to Lothian's 31 for a while - but who wanted to take a decrepit, cold, dimly lit boneshaker when a 31 would be due along shortly? And that was another thing - running the X77 (and others) two minutes ahead of the Lothian service was, to say the least, cynical.

Another issue was frequency. At the time, the only direct link from where I live to Dalkeith or Straiton was the hourly 141. I could time my journey to leave, but if I missed the return there was an hour wait, and with First's refusal to join the Bus Tracker system, how do I know if I've missed it or it's running ten minutes late (in 2008 he said First were negotiating to join Bus Tracker).

If a bus runs every 15 minutes or less, then people will risk taking the journey. Any more and they may prefer, as I did, to travel to Dalkeith or Straiton via Cameron Toll on Lothian.

Fares are another issue. I understand that bus operations need to be financially viable. For a while, First undercut Lothian's fares on on X77 and 86A but not on those where there was no competition. Given the stark contrast in fares in places like East Lothian and Aberdeenshire, where First has a monopoly, what would have happened to those fares should Lothian have removed the 31 or 3? I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one.

Some local communities are already organising to try to reverse the decision. Personally I think it's a waste of time. My experience of speaking with the bus companies, and I've also met Lothian's Operations Manager Bill Campbell a number of times, is to suggest viable routes and extensions to existing routes, then to publicise any new ones or changes in the community, as I have done through our community council's newsletter.

Of course it would help if the Scottish Government showed a bit of vision and put resources into stimulating demand and investment - not just giving money to bus companies, but giving local councils resources to build more bus shelters, bus lanes and install tracker systems. However, with priorities like building new bridges and motorways, it will have little money left over for preparing for the time when either oil costs so much or congestion such a problem that people will be looking for alternatives.

You could even say the Scottish Government has missed the bus on this - we certainly will in six weeks' time.