At least one candidate has made the council elections interesting

Norma Austin Hart Picture: City of Edinburgh Council

Norma Austin Hart Picture: City of Edinburgh Council
Hats off to Norma Hart – or Norma Austin Hart as we must now call her. It is only because of her that anybody has actually realised there are local elections going on at all.

Ms Hart/Austin Hart is standing for Labour in the Edinburgh ward of Liberton and Gilmerton, where her main rival is fellow Labour stalwart Bill Cook.

Mr Cook, of course, has a surname which starts with a C – so, in any normal process, he would naturally earn the right to a higher spot on the ballot paper. But not any more.

Ms Hart’s recent decision to change her name to Norma Austin Hart means that it will be her, with her new A at the start of her name, and not Mr Cook, who holds the higher spot on the ballot.

Why is this important? Because it seems that many voters have already become so weary of our new fairer, more democratic and more inclusive system of proportional representation that they just go down the list, marking a 1 beside the first name, a 2 beside the second and so on.

This voting pattern is broken up slightly by those who vote in party order but who also give their first preference to the higher name on the paper.

Everybody in local government politics knows this is how the system works, but Ms Austin Hart insists that she did not change her name to put her higher up the paper than Mr Cook.

She maintains that Austin is her maiden name and she was merely changed it back to a form of her original name because she is remarrying, rather than take her husband’s name.

“The truth is I’m getting married,” she said. “I’m taking it as an opportunity to line up my personal name, my business name and my political name.”

It must be just a coincidence, then, that this decision – taken before nominations closed – resulted in her securing the all-important higher placing on the paper.

But whether or not Ms Austin Hart changed her name to get herself a high position on the ballot paper, her decision – and the publicity it has sparked – has revealed a few interesting (if not entirely palatable currents) in our local democracy.

The first is that the single transferable vote (STV) system is not working entirely as it should.

The Liberal Democrats secured this form of proportional representation for council elections in Scotland in return for their support of the Jack McConnell-led Scottish executive, post-2003. Their arguments at the time were clear and sounded good.

They pointed to the dominance of Labour in town halls across the west and central parts of Scotland, often without securing a majority of the votes cast, and demanded that something fairer and more accountable be put in its place.

STV seemed the logical answer, but it is now clear that it only works if the candidates are well enough known to the voters that they will actually be making a clear and cogent choice when they make their preferences.

If a voter doesn’t know one candidate from another but supports, say, the Labour Party, how is he or she you going to vote? Most will just hand their votes to the Labour candidates in the easiest order possible and that usually means 1 nearest the top and so on.

STV is a great system in theory and superb in practice when the electorate has a full and rounded knowledge of the candidates standing for election, but it is being turned into a name-centred lottery by an electorate which doesn’t really know enough about those on the ballot paper.

However, this isn’t really a fault of the electorate. There will be some voters who will have studied the literature dropping through their letterboxes, who will know the relative strengths and weaknesses of the individual candidates and know precisely who they want to vote for and in what order – but they will be in a minority, a substantial minority.

More than that, though, those knowledgeable voters will have cultivated this knowledge in spite of – not because of – the general media coverage of the elections.

Ms Austin Hart’s case has been highlighted in the press, but only because it personalises the election in a humorous way. The rest of the campaign has drifted along almost unnoticed.

Part of this is because local election campaigns are always quite dull. No editor is going to clear a front page for a council election story unless it involves sex, money, animals and preferably all three.

But it is also because we, as a country, are kind of electioned-out. We had a groundbreaking Westminster election in 2010, an even more momentous Scottish election in 2011 and now we have to come down to earth with boring old local government elections – no wonder the voters are finding it hard to get worked up about them.

In the 15 years since Labour came to power at Westminster in 1997, we have had four Scottish elections, three Westminster contests, three European elections and a referendum. Is anybody surprised that there is a certain amount of voter fatigue setting in?

These elections do matter in terms of local democracy, but they matter also because they will be seen as a progress report on the SNP government. If the SNP do well, it will give Alex Salmond and his ministers an extra fillip as they drive through towards the referendum in 2014.

If Labour do well, then the results will give Johann Lamont confidence as she tries to regain some form of electoral platform to fightback against the nationalists.

The parties know that, which is why they will send their members out to the polling stations to vote next month. But the rest of us? An alarming number will stay at home. Turnout could be down around the 30-40 per cent level, which will be depressing.

And those who do go to vote? Many will look at the unfamiliar names, scratch their heads and start marking their preferences on the list from the top down.

That may be good news for Ms Hart/Austin Hart, but not that great for local democracy.

  • sgritheall

    I am dumbfounded. I was not aware that one could have a personal name, a political name and a business name. What a strange world we live in.

  • There is a fairly simple way to stop this sort of thing: you can randomise the order of candidates on a ballot paper or re-order them through methods such as the Robson Rotation (
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robson_Rotation). The fact that this hasn’t been done in ALL UK elections a long time ago is frankly gobsmacking.

  • Pah, I remember her when she stood in Dumfries as Norma Aardvark.
    Good article from Hamish, according to a friend involved in these things there does seem to be a major case of apathy on the doorstep. It is reckoned locally that anything north of 40% of the electorate engaging in the democratic process will be a success. It seems that the buzz of combined balloting for both Holywood and Council elections is missed!

  • Douglas

    ‘Why is this important? Because it seems that many voters have already become so weary of our new fairer, more democratic and more inclusive system of proportional representation that they just go down the list, marking a 1 beside the first name, a 2 beside the second and so on.
    Everybody in local government politics knows this is how the system works’
    ——————-

    Are the general population really that thick? That worries me, a lot.

    To be honest, this first started worrying me after the 2007 Scottish election, was it really THAT difficult to navigate the voting papers? Maybe democracy is a bad idea afterall 😉

  • Brian Fleming

    Hamish, I think you might her main rival comes from a party other than the Labour Party.