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LGC FEATURE - IN DEFENCE OF APATHY

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It is not that the public is apathetic, it is just that many of us have got more interesting things to do than pond...
It is not that the public is apathetic, it is just that many of us have got more interesting things to do than ponder the implications of the latest local government debate, says Sara Wajid
I was starting to feel shifty. As the panel hotly debated the regrettable phenomenon of mainstream political disengagement, I thought of the irksome council flyer - Have you voted yet? - I had been trampling into the doormat all month.
A theatre full of punters had gathered at a conference organised by the Institute of Ideas on a Saturday afternoon to discuss my shameful apathy. I nodded piously as the director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, Matthew Taylor, celebrated citizen's juries while privately chastising myself for being such a bad, bad citizen.
But then the political cartoonist Martin Rowson spoke up for me and my ilk:
'This yearning for greater participation sounds horribly like the whinge of the adolescent nerd in the sixth-form common room trying to get people to join the English-speaking union, 'Why's everyone so bloody apathetic?' Well, they're not, they've just got better things to do than what you think they should do.' Phew, I am not bad - just cool.
On closer inspection of the flyer I remembered why it had been such a turn-off.
'A new constitution for Haringey - decide how your councillors should make the decisions which affect you.' Strangely, I'm not fascinated by the minutiae of local government political processes. It is like plumbing: it only forces itself on my attention if something is wrong and then I get a professional to mend it. I resent the council asking me to do its plumbing.
But perhaps it was not the nag to participate that left me cold, maybe it was just the manner of asking. Poole BC managed to convince 28,485 people - 26.4% of the electorate - to respond to the same question with the innovative Who is Jules Jolliffe? campaign. For a fortnight the question was asked on billboards and local radio stations.
Poole was alive with conjecture about the identity of the mystery character until it was revealed to be the fictional new mayor or leader of the council.
Roadshows followed the revelation explaining the importance of the constitution.
As Milton Keynes councillor Isobel Wilson told me: 'There's a real art to consultation. If councils consult about everything then it becomes meaningless.
It is important to make sure it's the big issues or people will get sick of it.
It works if it is something that might affect you, if it is made very clear why you are consulting and if feedback is given showing that the public's views have been taken into account. For instance, in Milton Keynes more people responded to the referendum on raising council tax than in the local election a month later.'
However even if someone had knocked on my door and offered me a bag of sweets for my vote I would still be among the 73.6% of Poole residents that did not respond.
As Professor George Jones, professor of governmentat London School of Economics, says: 'The whole point of representative democracy is that we vote for other people to do the boring work we don't want to do. Political and government aficionados are a small minority; polls show that very few people are interested in politics and of them only 3 or 4% are interested in local politics.'
As Professor Jones points out, the consultation on new council structures was a central government directive: 'Central government is consultation mad. In my experience people who actually have to organise these consultations are very cynical about it.' Join the club.
-Sara Wajid, is a freelance journalist and apathetic resident of Haringey LBC.
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