Is your university undermining local government?

Summary

Some thoughts on Phil Rogers’ findings on electoral trends in Cambridge – with some tough questions for Cambridge University colleges and Anglia Ruskin University

This blogpost follows on nicely from my previous one on the role of civic society & local government social media boosting voter turnout & engagement. (If you haven’t read it, it’s here, & puts what follows into context).

The Sage of Cambridge City Politics, Phil Rogers has posted this very interesting analysis of voter turnout & active campaigning.

Before you proceed, please at least scan the graphs in Phil’s blogpost linked above.

Comprendez? Then we can proceed.

“What did Phil have to say?”

There were three things that stood out:

  1. There is a correlation between active campaigning and voter turnout
  2. There is a correlation between active campaigning by more than one party, and size of majority
  3. The wards dominated by Cambridge University student closed residences (ie halls) had low turnouts with low majorities

I’m not going to make the mistake of saying correlation = causation. My interest as per my previous blogpost is in engagement and turnout. What citizens choose to do with that engagement & with their vote is their business. The impact that greater engagement and turnout has is that it helps people exercise an informed vote – which then impacts on the legitimacy of the decisions taken by councillors.

Institutional rather than personal barriers

My interest is on the former rather than the latter. A number of people – myself included have commented (in particular at a national and international level) the lack of talent in political life, and the lack of calibre of a number of people elected to high public office. Rather than applying the same moaning at a local level, I’m looking at institutional barriers to engagement – because I think there’s more to local democracy than casting a vote.

In my previous blogpost I looked at barriers around face-to-face engagement and ‘hustings’. In this one, I want to look at something Phil raised – one that is currently being discussed by a number of Cambridge locals on Twitter as I type this. (See Richard Taylor and Tim Haire in particular). Looking at students in particular, Phil wrote the following:

Student turnout tends to be low for several reasons:

  • young people in general have a lower turnout than older people
  • many students feel less involved with local government than more permanent residents
  • student residences tend to be inaccessible to local party campaigners – colleges do not allow them access to knock on students’ doors, and some colleges refuse to accept election leaflets unless they are individually addressed
  • many students were away for the Easter vacation during much of the election campaign

With the second bullet point, how can we encourage students to feel more involved with what goes on in their local community? Especially if every academic year they move to a new residence and/or are kicked out during the holidays to make their rooms available for the lucrative conferencing market?

With the third bullet point in particular, this also applies to sheltered housing. How do you make closed and sheltered housing more accessible for canvassers in particular around election time? (It’s one of the reasons why I abhor gated communities too. I can understand why you’d have them in high crime areas, but Cambridge? Really?)

With the fourth bullet point, this is one for those tabling the university terms. Is there any way to co-ordinate university term times to account for when local elections are on, given that Cambridge has them every year.

“Hang on Pooffles, don’t universities have student societies? Or are they all so far to the left that they fall off the pavement?”

There’s nothing stopping far left candidates from standing, as one or two do regularly. And yes, there are fairly active university party political societies in Cambridge. So part of the response to improve voter engagement and turnout may rest with encouraging party political student activists to play a more formal role in encouraging people to vote – or at least have a look at who happens to be standing before deciding whether to vote or not.

The other issue is the rules and regulations of colleges regarding canvassing. Ditto closed and sheltered accommodation. In recent years, colleges have clamped down on who can and cannot flyer student pigeon holes. Ditto with sending out college-wide emails. With good reason. There’s more than enough junk mail and spam in both. So what are the alternatives?

This for me is where elected councillors together need to sit down with colleges and those that run closed housing operations to thrash out a suitable agreement that ensures people are made aware when there are elections and who is standing. How they go about doing so will vary depending on the nature of the accommodation. I’m not going to be prescriptive and say everyone has to fling open their doors to every activist who turns up every other day or at random times in the middle of the night, for example. Rather, leaving it up to those who know far better about either side to come up with a sensible and reasonable compromise that can help tackle the problems of low engagement and low turnout.

Roles of student unions, housing associations & council democratic services

This is something where conversation and co-ordination could have an impact. It doesn’t need to go beyond the essentials of:

“There is an election, it is for institution X that is responsible for Y services, and you can find more information about who is standing on what platform at Z. Oh, & here is when & where to vote/how to register to vote.”

Links to wider political and public policy debates

As I mentioned in February 2013, something is stirring in Cambridge public policy circles. There are a growing number of conversations that are happening in academic circles – a number of which I have been party to. (More often than not, with dragon fairy). One of the things several people facilitating these discussions have asked me is how they can engage with both the wider local community and with wider public policy circles. Hence the importance of linking the various groups and societies together, both at a face-to-face level and on social media.

I was at an event recently with Cambridge University’s Science and Policy Exchange, where three eminent academics – Barbara Sahakian, Mark Stokes and David Nutt – were talking about evidence-based policy-making & the role of science. (I touched upon it in this blogpost). One of the things I said to the many scientists in the room is that some of them needed to get involved in party politics in order to have a greater impact on the policy-making process. The reason being that it is at party political level that many of the high level principles are formed, that then end up in the Whitehall policy jungle later down the line. But what route does a city buzzing with scientists have if the institutions that they work within are not as open as they could be to grassroots politics – one of the routes into politics at a national level. Remember Julian Huppert MP is one example of someone local (he went to school in Cambridge) who has ended up in national politics having gone through local government as a former councillor in Cambridge.

So to finish with…?

There are some changes that can be made within various institutions. But those institutions need to be aware of the problems, accept they exist and acknowledge they are part of the solution too.

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