Are elections good for democracy?

POLITICIANS are caught up in election fever today, with council votes looming across the country.But it is sometimes difficult for those of us who live and work in Ipswich and in places like that to remember that for much - if not most - of the country this year's elections are a complete irrelevance.

POLITICIANS are caught up in election fever today, with council votes looming across the country.

But it is sometimes difficult for those of us who live and work in Ipswich and in places like that to remember that for much - if not most - of the country this year's elections are a complete irrelevance.

In Ipswich a third of the council is up for election, and depending on results the political balance at Civic Centre could change considerably or be confirmed as it is.

But elsewhere in Suffolk there are no elections - in rural districts like Suffolk Coastal, Mid Suffolk, and Babergh the whole council is up for re-election next year.

There have often been debates about whether it is better for local democracy to have annual elections, like in Ipswich, or whether it is better to have a one-off hiatus every four years.

As something of a election junkie, I rather like the fact that in Ipswich we go to the polls every year - it gives a political hack something to write about and it does give an indication of how the parties are standing in the town.

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But I'm not convinced that it is good for democracy.

For years in the 1990s it was a mathematical impossibility for Labour to lose control at Civic Centre. With only a third of the council up for election in any one year, even if the opposition had won every seat up for grabs Labour would have remained in power.

Today it is much tighter - but political reality suggests that Labour is unlikely to make its comeback this year.

But while annual elections might be good for us political junkies, for the population as a whole they are something of a turn-off. And if the voters don't think there's any point in voting, they won't vote.

One prediction that is fairly safe about this year's election is that turnout will be low. Only people with a keen interest in politics in Ipswich will bother to vote.

And those who vote will probably not consider local issues - they'll be treating the election as a national beauty pageant on the strengths of the various parties.

Meanwhile, as politicians turn the spotlight on Ipswich, in the other districts life continues as normal as they prepare for their elections next May.

And that is a lifetime away for most local politicians - they won't start thinking about those until after Christmas. By which time the national political scene could look very different.

Talking of Ipswich's elections, you can't accuse the Liberal Democrats in the town of not taking them seriously enough.

In my part of town the party was out delivering leaflets for their candidate before 9am on Easter Sunday morning. That's serious dedication!

I'M slightly puzzled by the concern we're hearing from government ministers and independent think-tanks who have spent the last few days warning us about the rise of the BNP in some urban areas.

I can't help this represents a total failure of the major parties in those areas - they have clearly failed to offer anything to many voters if the BNP is able to make advances.

It's a phenomenon we have seen before. During the dying days of the Labour government in the late 1970s the National Front made advances, especially in the West Midlands, before melting back into the obscurity it deserved.

It's advance at that time was largely put down to the fact that traditional political parties were doing nothing to talk to “normal” people - they were spending all their time organising trade union branches or attending think-tank meetings to discuss what would happen when Mrs Thatcher took power.

I can't help feeling that history is repeating itself in those areas where the BNP is now becoming strong.

Labour has tended to run those areas on its own for decades with no real challenge and has become complacent and out of touch.

The Conservatives have thrown in the towel in poor urban areas across the country - and while it might look like a good photo opportunity for David Cameron to visit an Asian-run shop in the east end, its really no substitute for foot slogging on the ground.

And the Liberal Democrats have proved that they can build up support in urban areas - but generally need a catalyst to get things going. Without that catalyst they can be an electoral irrelevance.

It is in this kind of political vacuum that the BNP can flourish. Luckily in Suffolk we don't have the breeding ground for such extremism. Major political parties are strong enough to fight each other and there isn't room for the extreme right to move in.

Ipswich in particular has a multi-racial culture which does not seem to breed the same tensions as you find elsewhere. If there are tensions I think they seem to be among newer arrivals from eastern Europe rather than between more established immigrants and the white British population.

Let's hope that tolerance continues - and that our traditional parties remain strong and don't give the racists room to muscle in.

LABOUR is clearly very proud of its Dave the Chameleon broadcast this week - and must be delighted that it launched on the day David Cameron came up with the catchphrase: Vote Blue, Go Green!

But while many people seem to have seen the broadcast, most who enjoyed it seem to be about 12 years old - and it's a few years before they can vote!

DID you see the missive from Paul Billingham in the letters column of the Evening Star last night? This confirmed what I've thought for ages, that Mr Billingham is something of a fraud.

He regularly stands for the council, and has put himself up again this year, as the candidate of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

But in his letters he has never displayed anything approaching lunacy - in fact they are often the most sensible contributions you will see to the political debate on our postbag page!

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