Alexander Naile discusses why election day should be a national bank holiday.
Voting is the most important expression of our political will in a representative democracy, and the more people that get to exercise their right to vote the better. Every year on the first Thursday in May there are local elections somewhere in England and Wales, and every year most people who can vote do not do so.
The average is around a third of registered voters - and there are many areas that consistently have poorer turnout than this. In 2018, less than a quarter of voters in Hartlepool turned out, and there was only one area that pipped 50%; the London Borough of Richmond. That’s pretty abysmal, given the significant impact that local government has on people’s actual lived experience. Of course, we live in an unusually centralised country, and these aren’t General Elections. In December 2019 the turnout was 67.3%, which is significantly better, and in 2017 it reached the dizzying heights of 68.7%. That’s the highest it’s been this century, having dropped below 60% in 2001.
Democracy is a finicky thing, it needs looking after, and voting is how we do that. The lower turnout the less popular a party or an idea needs to be to succeed, which is why proponents of unpopular ideas often turn to voter suppression. The voter ID trials in last year’s local elections are a worrying step in that antidemocratic direction and demonstrate that we can’t be complacent. The right to vote is vital but, in order to have a strong democracy, voting also needs to be a habit.
Local government isn’t particularly well-liked and, with turnout as low as a quarter, is never going to be as representative as it should be. If all you need to do to keep your council seat is convince 12.5% of Hartlepudlians in your ward, you can afford to work for them and not for the whole of your electorate. In general, uncompetitive elections lead to worse governance and worse outcomes - so how can we fix it?
There’s been talk for years of holding General Elections on a bank holiday, but I believe that we should go further than that. Local elections are held on the same day as the General Election, but every year there’s some somewhere in England and Wales. So by having Election Day be an annual Bank holiday, we would move away from the ridiculous situation of holding elections on a working day as well as strengthen democracy at all levels of government.
By holding an annual holiday, turnout in General Elections would rise, and so would those for local elections. A bank holiday facilitates ease of voting which particularly alleviates the troubles of off-year local elections that suffer particularly harshly from apathetic voters who can’t make it to the ballot box, who forget, or who just can’t be bothered. When everyone votes, not just the most obsessive partisans and pensioners, then the incentives for councillors are better aligned with good governance. It is a lot easier to care about what (occasionally questionable) things your councillor might be voting for when you know their name, and voted for them. These councillors in turn are increasingly held to account, which can only lead to a more democratic and transparent process. The simple act of popping by the church on your day off and voting for whichever party you prefer will increase genuine engagement with local government, and thus improve the council’s efficacy in providing their voters with the desired outcomes.
We moved the May bank holiday this year to commemorate the victory over fascism in Europe, so why shouldn’t it be shunted from the first Monday to the first Thursday to strengthen and celebrate what was actually being fought for 75 years ago? Voting matters, and anything that can get more people to vote and to engage with the process of democracy is a good thing that will strengthen our communities and our country. An Election Day Bank Holiday would do just that.
Alexander Naile is a London Scot, keen gardener and secretary of the YF Environment Network.