This Metrolink map shows just how much local election turnout varies across Greater Manchester

A tram in central Manchester. Image: Getty.

Kingsley Purdam and Rob Ford from the University of Manchester use the Manchester Metrolink map to show levels of voter turnout – and ask if there will be more or less local democracy in 2018.

The 2018 local elections across England will be held in May, but despite their importance for policy they are likely to pass most people by. Turnout in local elections averages around 30 per cent, meaning over two thirds of people don’t take part.

In some cases, the numbers are far lower still. In the 2012 local elections one ward had a turnout of 13 per cent. Some polling districts within wards can record turnouts in single digits.

This compares to the 2017 General Election, where the lowest turnout in a constituency was 54 per cent, and the highest was 79 per cent.  In the 2016 local elections, the average turnout across wards in England was 34 per cent; the lowest level of turnout in a ward was 16 per cent and the highest level was 53 per cent.

Actually, it’s even worse than this sounds some local elections literally go uncontested as only one candidate is standing.

Official turnout statistics are based on the percentage of the people registered to vote who actually vote. But many people are not on the registers. The registers are around 90 per cent accurate and it is estimated that around 7.5m people are not correctly registered at their current address in Great Britain. People move home, and electoral registers lag behind.

Why people do and don’t vote

Many things affect whether people decide to vote. Their level of interest in politics, views of politicians, party identification, sense of civic duty, the type of area where they live, their age, gender, ethnicity, martial status, social class, level of qualifications – all these can play a role, and this is not an exhaustive list. In general, those people who have higher incomes and those with higher levels of qualifications are more likely to turnout and vote.

Turnout is also likely to vary according to the nature of the contest. Elections seen by voters as more important, like general elections or referendums, generally attract more people to the polls. So do close contests, and elections with intense local and national campaigning. The personal touch also counts – people are more likely to vote when they have been contacted by parties, but particularly when they are canvassed in person by local party representatives.

But many people are not that interested, and it doesn’t take much to turn some of them off the idea of voting – bad weather or even a longer walk to the polling station can reduce turnout.

The low levels of turnout at local elections reflect the lower profile of local elections, which attract less media coverage and are seen by many voters as less important. However some people have a specific attachment to a local issue or politician and a stronger sense that they can make a difference in local affairs, which can drive turnout. Many people vote for a different party at a local election compared a general election, even if both elections are held on the same day – something which boosts local turnout a lot.

Democracy in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester is home to 2.7m people living in ten local authorities. It includes some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK. In the context of the on-going debates about the nature of Brexit and devolved government in the Northwest, we have mapped the turnout levels from the 2016 local elections to each tram stop on the Manchester Metrolink, to illustrate the stark differences in political engagement which occur even in small areas.

The turnout rates shown here are based on the percentage of people on the electoral register who voted. They include postal votes and invalid votes, such as spoiled ballots. We also include information on the level of socio-economic deprivation in the areas where the tram stops are located using the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). The IMD is an official measure, which ranks local areas across England in terms of the levels of employment, education and health. Here we show the decile of the area ranking in relation to England as a whole.

Democracy on the Line. Click to expand. Image: author provided.

Mind the Representation Gap

As the map highlights, electoral turnout varies considerably across Greater Manchester, even between local areas. Moreover these rates don’t take account of the many people who are not registered to vote.

Of the tram stops highlighted 15 are in areas where turnout was less than 30 per cent. Most of these stops are in areas ranked as amongst the most economically deprived in Greater Manchester, and all are represented by Labour Party councillors.

Only 3 tram stops are in areas which had turnout rates of 50 per cent or higher (Freehold, Timperley and Oldham Mumps). Many closely connected tram stops are in areas which can have very different levels of electoral turnout. For example, Chorlton and Withington are just a few minutes apart, but there is a 15 per cent difference in electoral turnout.

The journey from Timperley (one of the most economically prosperous areas in Greater Manchester) to central Manchester (one of the most economically deprived areas) takes around 25 minutes, and involves a drop in voter turnout of 28 percentage points The average journey time between Wythenshawe Town Centre and Chorlton is 24 minutes, with turnout rising 25 percentage points on this short journey. In both these examples, the highly economically deprived area has very low political engagement, while the more economically prosperous stop has much higher turnout.

However deprivation is not the only factor influencing turnout. For example, the tram stops of Oldham Mumps and Freehold are in some of the most economically deprived areas of Greater Manchester (and England for that matter) – but the levels of turnout in these areas are amongst the highest.

More or less local democracy in 2018?

The differences in electoral turnout across local areas are striking. In many areas, very few people vote, despite the fact that politics dominates much of the news and that political decisions are directly linked to the laws we live by, the public services we pay for and access and the regulation of the markets.

Whilst a range of factors are linked with electoral turnout, overall turnout is lower in areas of economic deprivation. Yet it is just these areas that are most in need of more democratic accountability and policy maker engagement in order to hear the views of the residents and for economic and social problems to be addressed.

Often the areas in the UK which have the highest levels of economic deprivation are the most in need of political policy interventions and accountability have the biggest democratic deficits. This is likely to be linked to people’s sense of engagement and belief that the electoral system and politicians can represent their views and deliver change. This can produce a vicious circle, with low engagement levels reducing the incentive for politicians to listen and respond to communities, who then become even more disheartened and disengaged.

Despite a range on initiatives aimed at increasing the levels of political engagement, there is still a disconnect between the policy makers and the people. Perhaps the next local elections will start to change this – but given the magnitude of the challenge, there will still be much work left to do after the votes are counted and the newly elected councillors take their seats.

Kingsley Purdam is a senior lecturer in social research, and Rob Ford a professor of political science, at the University of Manchester.

This research is part of on going work at the University of Manchester. For more information please contact us.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.