Ed is right to highlight low turnout - there is much to be done to improve public engagement with politics

As an Ed Miliband supporter I’ve been pleased to see Ed’s reaction to the local election victories. Not overzealous celebratory rhetoric but instead a calm recognition that only 30% of the electorate (in the areas which held local elections) actually turned out to vote for anyone, thus Labour’s 38% of the vote was actually 38% of 30%. My maths skills are terrible but I think that works out to about 11.4% of the total potential voters actually came out to vote for Labour.

Sorry to put a downer on the jubilation but these are the harsh facts we need to appreciate. Ed’s speech to the Progress Conference today was equally stark, pointing out that anyone attending is hardly representative of ‘the people’ as those who engage in politics nowadays are a quirky minority whilst the majority will be out shopping, watching sports or indeed working today. These are the people Labour needs not only to engage with to win but these are the very people who Labour was born to represent, it should be the ‘people’s party’ and it won’t realise that lofty position again without giving these people, ‘the 99%’, a good reason to think that Labour is the party for them.

Like anything in terms of Labour policy at the moment things are rather opaque but I’m enthused to hear Ed talk about the need for Labour to become much more localised and involved in the daily grind of community issues. I couldn’t write my first post-election blog and not dedicate a sentence to congratulating my great friend Tom Bond on his fantastic victory, becoming a Labour councillor for Rogerstone ward in Newport, South Wales – this was on the back of weeks of constant campaigning and it was the sale of the local fields and a set of cars constantly blocking a road which were the main concerns on the doorstep, followed by the state of the city centre. Labour needs to use these council election gains to deliver real improvements in people's daily lives, visible improvements for towns and cities across the country where they have been entrusted with power. Every Labour council, indeed every Labour ward should have a ‘1-year on’ plan setting out what it aims to achieve within its first year of office. Equally every Labour councillor should pledge to go door-knocking at least a few weeks every year, listening to people’s concerns throughout their term in power rather than just when elections roll around again. Showing people that voting Labour reaps results and embedding our councillors as key figures in the local community are vital parts of the rebuilding process.

I’m also delighted to hear that Ed Miliband has announced Labour CLPs will be mobilised to get out on a massive voter registration drive. An estimated 6million people are not registered to vote in their actual place of residence, a disproportionate amount have low-incomes – these should be Labour’s core vote, reaching out to them, registering them and then, crucially, staying in touch with them will bolster hopes of Labour restoring the ‘people’s party’ mantle and sweeping to victory in 2015.

The lowest turnout age group is 18-30. After being ceremoniously ditched by the Liberal Democrats the student vote is up for Labour’s taking but it must get out to every single campus and listen to concerns and genuinely reach out to the student population rather than the clunky pledge to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 that was announced at conference last year (a pledge which wouldn't actually reduce students monthly repayments and instead would benefit higher earning graduates). The biggest problem for Labour is that the courting of the student vote often distracts from the wider problem of reaching out to all young people, i.e. those not yet old enough to vote but who will be in May 2015 (there’s about 2.4million of them), those who aren’t yet at university (on gap years etc. or more politically interesting: those who missed out on a university place), those who have already left university and are looking to get a job/onto the housing ladder and most importantly those who didn’t/won’t go to university. The ‘youth vote’ is a diverse grouping. Politicians failure to quite appreciate this has no doubt led to much of the apathy amongst this age range - Labour needs an ’18-30 voter engagement strategy’.

Just one interesting area for development was the little noticed Young British Talent Showcase, hosted by Eddie Izzard at the Labour conference in Liverpool last year. This invited anyone 16-24 with a business or science idea, a community project or an art, media or design talent to send it in, a top 3 were selected (by someone in the Party?) and then judged ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ style on the day. I haven’t seen anything about this year’s conference but it should be repeated and promoted asap to get as many entries as possible. This kind of opportunity could be localised with local Labour parties organising non-party events like talent shows, quiz nights and comedy nights that are for all the family in every community hall all over the country. Further to that Labour should be approaching 6th forms, colleges and universities to offer the opportunity to make posters for different campaigns and to make campaign videos for each candidate at the next general election to played on the new local TV stations the government is planning as well as on YouTube. These kind of opportunities will revitalise Labour’s ability to campaign at little or no cost and make campaign materials more in-tune with young people.

Finally, Ed Miliband should call on the Government to establish a Royal Commission to look at:

  • Whether online voting could securely be implemented;
  • Would moving votes to Saturdays or spreading them over 2 days would improve turnout?
  • Should we extend the franchise to 16 and 17 years olds?
  • Should there be a single date for all local elections nationwide (as exists in Scotland and Wales)?

Ed Miliband is absolutely right to remark on the low turnout and utilise it as a moment for genuine change, he must now ensure he does everything he can to act on his convictions and reach out to ‘the people’ long before 2015.