Friday, 23 May 2014

Day 22: Vote local

For much Europe, today was election day. European Community Elections and in the UK and some other countries, additional council elections. I've been out to vote already (and I always encourage to do so) but by the time I get this on-line, the polls will be closed, so I don’t expect anyone to read this and think wow, I must run out and vote. It’s too late for that - this time. But I do want to talk about why I think it’s worth doing, next time.

With the exception of my neighbourhood, everyone in London had two polls to cast a vote in today. One for the European Parliament, in which you are allowed one vote for a European parliament member, and one for your respective local city council, in which you can cast up to three votes for different local city councillors.

In our London neighbourhood - Queens Park - we are slightly special. In addition to the European and City Council ballots, we are voting for a Community Council, the first and only one in London, ever. The area it covers - defined as Queens Park Parish - isn’t very large: It’s some (but not all) of the postal districts of W9 & W10, an area of no more than 2 square miles. Probably less.

So just what is a Community Council? Apparently it is:

"An elected Community Council (aka town council or parish council), which will share the same legal powers and responsibilities as the other 8,000-plus town and parish councils that came into being as a result of Victorian legislation in 1894.

Parish councils are the lowest or first tier of local government. They are responsible for areas known as civil parishes and the elected bodies have variable tax raising powers.

The Queen's Park Community Council will be made up of 12 Councillors, all of whom live within the area, who will serve a four year term. Over that period they will consult with all residents on local priorities and be accountable to them for spending more than £500,000"

It’s unclear at the moment how much of a real influence on local life the community council will have once elected - only time will tell. Half a million pounds sounds like a lot of money, but in a big city like London I bet that can disappear really fast. Over 4 years it’s barely £10k a month. But its exciting to think that people we know as neighbours will have some resources to spend and powers to act on things I can see out of the kitchen window!

Really? Yes really! On my way out of the polling office, I met some of the candidates. Every one of them lives within a mile of home and one of them I went to school with when I was less 10 years old. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever actually been connected to the candidates in an election I’ve voted in.

And we would never have got to this stage at all if the local community hadn’t voted in a referendum a couple of years back to have a community council in the first place.

A friend of mine once told me that "voting in local elections is likely the most influence you'll ever have on the politics that directly effect your life." Or something like that. She probably phrased it far more elegantly. Regardless, the essence of it, I think is true. It's easy to believe, that in a national election,
your single vote isn't going to make a difference (despite that fact it will), but in a local election of thousands or even just hundreds, it's hard to dismiss the notion that every vote counts.

But it's not just the counting that makes a difference. In local government there is a much higher ability to meet and influence the people you are voting for and ultimately the people in power. Let's be honest, you're unlikely to ever have even a passing conversation with a member of parliament (or congress). Your local councillor, on the other hand, could very possibly shop on your high road and drink in your local pub.

So if you didn’t do it this time round, next election day, get involved. Don’t be an armchair critic, complaining about the state of the neighbourhood, town or city you live in. Vote and do something about it. Meet the people who run things. Buy them a pint. Get them to buy you two. Get drunk with them (but don't get arrested with them. That shit doesn't look good on anyone's CV). You might genuinely make a difference, by doing nothing more than talking to your neighbours and getting involved.