Every three years in New Zealand the voters go to the polls to vote for their local mayors, local council and regional councillors and health board officials. 2013 is the local body elections and it’s been marked by… well, not a lot. The problem is that voters just don’t seem to be interested in voting.
Historically, voter turnout in local government elections have always been low with voter turnout hovering between about 45% 50%. To some extent this can be accredited to the widely held belief that local politics isn’t as important as to what central government does. While such a sentiment may have been true about thirty years ago or more the impact of what councils do are now making an increasingly big impact on the lives of working people in New Zealand.
Throughout New Zealand local councils make many decisions that can intrude into or disrupt the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people . This could be something as drastic as a proposed Expressway or residential subdivision or as seemingly minor as the introduction of a district-wide liquor ban or including changes to Land Information (LIM) reports that for example relate to the possible erosion risk to say beach front properties caused by global climate change.
By far, the most common issues that have always dominated local government elections in New Zealand have been rates increases and how rates are spent. Every election, candidates promise to lower rates and not to squander rates on “white elephants” and “fiscally irresponsible” projects.
The candidates promise they will be different from all the others, only to do more or less what the others have done. As has been the case in most of the developed world New Zealand has seen a major decline in the number of people joining political parties. This has not only resulted in the decline in both the range and quality of political candidates in general elections but it has also resulted in local government elections dominated by an increasingly narrow range of people who are mostly white, middle aged and right-wing.
Most candidates who run in local government elections do so under the banner of being independent, implying no political party affiliation. In practice, most independent candidates tend to favour very conservative, reactionary policies that impact most negatively on the working class, such as the sale of council and community owned assets, the introduction of user pays for everything from lending books from the library to using water, and the hiking up of rents for low income people and pensioners living in council owned flats.
Traditionally, local government elections were usually fought between the Labour Party on the one side and a local group calling itself “Citizens United” or some other name who were, for the most part National Party members. Since the 1980s this has largely ceased. Only in cities like Porirua, where Labour still commands both the support and votes of a sizeable part of the local population, do Labour Party candidates openly declare their political party allegiance. In other local councils, such as the Kapiti Coast District Council, one could be forgiven for thinking that Labour had all but disappeared as a political force for none of the candidates have come out as openly Labour.
There still seems to be a belief among many local government election candidates that openly declaring their political party affiliations will compromise their ability to get elected. Yet, as local government elections in Auckland, Porirua and Wellington have shown in the past and still continue to show candidates who openly declare their political party leanings are more likely to get elected than those who don’t and voter turnout in councils where candidates openly announce their political party allegiances tend to have a higher voter turnout unless there are major issues that have galvanised the voters.
When candidates declare their political party allegiances it makes the decision of who to vote for much easier for the voters. For workers the knowledge that a candidate is from the Labour Party implies the candidate stands for basic principles that will benefit the working class in the local community. It is among the working class and the poor that voting has declined the most. All too often they are being sent booklets full of the same faces saying very much the same thing with little to distinguish them from their opponents. The result is those booklets end up in the rubbish bin along with the voting papers. Workers need to know who is standing up for them in their local councils and the only way they can know this is for Labour Party candidates to state openly who they are and what they stand for to distinguish them from the anonymous local body right-wing candidates who are only interested in serving big business. To continue this “apolitical approach” encourages low turn-outs and further ensures the right that their candidates will most likely win. In fact this approach undermines the limited democracy we have under capitalism.
In the bigger picture if Labour wants to entice the thousands of disillusioned workers who in record numbers do not vote to come out in next year's general election then the local body elections were a golden opportunity to not only build the party and elect Labour councillors but also to build a platform of a clear socialist alternative to the National-led government
O Comrades, Wherefore Art Thou?