Call to arms for fresh political talent to counter voter apathy

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DISILLUSIONED voters are being urged to make a stand against the three main political parties across England’s largest county amid grave concerns that record low election turn-outs are undermining local democracy.

Independent members on councils in North Yorkshire are joining forces to stage a charm offensive to recruit candidates ahead of next year’s forthcoming local elections to campaign on a series of local issues.

Swingeing cuts to NHS services, controversy over funding for schools and the need to promote the county’s rural communities have all been identified as key topics for which to mount election campaigns before voters go to the polls in May next year.

Veteran councillor John Blackie, who represents the Upper Dales division on North Yorkshire County Council, is spearheading the drive to encourage more independent candidates to stand in the authority’s elections next year.

Coun Blackie, who is also the leader of Richmondshire District Council, began his political career as an Independent in the late 1990s before switching to the Conservatives and then changing back again. He is the lead spokesman on a group representing 10 Independent members from Harrogate, Selby, Craven, Scarborough and Richmondshire councils.

He said there was a groundswell of support for candidates outside of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour. Independents numbered 61 in North Yorkshire after the elections on May 5 last year – making up nearly a seventh of the 402 members across the county’s nine councils and outnumbering both the Lib Dems and Labour.

Coun Blackie revealed advice will be available to rookie candidates standing for the first time from existing councillors who will share experiences on staging campaigns with posters and canvassing as well the use of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

He said: “An Independent councillor has a brief for standing up for local communities first and foremost without having to adhere to a specific party line. Charity does begin at home, and I do believe that the independent members in North Yorkshire have made a difference to the local constituents who we serve.

“People are becoming more and more disillusioned with the coalition Government, as the localism that is being preached is not materialising on important issues such as health and school funding. The loudest and strongest voice is a united voice and with a consensus on specific issues we can make our views heard. That is the way democracy works, but it is not to say that we have to act as a group all the time.”

Coun Blackie pointed towards the record low turn-outs for last week’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections as a clear indication more needs to be done to engage with the electorate.

In North Yorkshire, the turn-out on Thursday last week was just 14.32 per cent – or 88,615 voters who went to polling stations. The Conservative Julia Mulligan triumphed against a single rival candidate, Labour’s Ruth Potter.

The county council’s leader, Coun John Weighell, a Conservative member for the Bedale division, admitted more needs to be done to engage with the electorate. Turnouts for General Elections in North Yorkshire have slipped from 80 per cent to around 60 per cent, while local elections in the county attract only about 40 per cent of the electorate.

But Coun Weighell maintained a distinction needed to be made between national and local politics, and said voter apathy with Westminster would not be necessarily mirrored in next May’s elections.

He added: “Because someone stands for a particular political party does not mean that they do not represent local people and their local council first. To achieve anything there needs to be the backing of a strong group.”