The majority of Wiganers are unlikely to vote in the local elections - here's why
The 2019 local elections take place on Thursday but, if recent turnout patterns continue in the same vein, the vast majority of Wigan residents will not have their say at the ballot box.
For The Streets That Don’t Vote project, Local Democracy reporters have been out on the doorsteps in wards with the lowest turnout records to ask why so few bother – and if that is likely to change this week.
There will have been knocks on the door, leaflets through the letterbox and campaigning selfies filling social media feeds.
In the mainstream media, the phrase ‘the country will go to the polls’ will echo in news bulletins and articles during build-up to the local elections on May 2.
But it isn’t strictly true. In some parts of Greater Manchester, only one in five people will be putting their cross in a box this week.
Linda Cooper is one of many in her Wigan ward asking themselves: “Why should I bother?”
“I only vote occasionally, normally when it’s the general election on the same day,” says the 59-year-old, who says the trend in poor turnouts locally does not surprise her.
“I think we all share the same views about the government, nevermind anything else,” she says.
Douglas – Linda’s electoral ward – had a turnout of 20.8 percent last year.
It was among the lowest in Wigan and across Greater Manchester as a whole. In 2014, the figure was around 25pc and if the view on the doorstep is anything to go by, the downward trend could continue this year.
Faith in politicians to deliver on promises and in the political system to make a difference in everyday life has deteriorated, residents told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
“A lot of people think if they’ve got a roof over their head and food on the table, that’s all that matters,” Linda adds.
Out on the doorsteps, there are Brexit storm clouds circling.
“IF WE ARE NOT OUT OF EU BY 29/3/19, NO LONGER A DEMOCRATIC COUNTRY, SO WHY VOTE?” reads the back of one postal vote letter.
“I won’t vote in any elections – any – until we’ve come out of the EU,” Rita McCardle, the note’s author, explains.
“I wanted to come out before they even had the referendum.”
Rita and neighbours on Sherwood Grove will put up Union flags on March 29, they say. A ‘Democracy is Dead’ placard is being prepared.
Although most may not follow such forthright means of expression, the fall-out from 2016’s EU referendum is a recurring theme.
“I have voted in the past, but I don’t think I will this time,” says Charlene Rathbone.
The 35-year-old voted in the referendum but now asks: “What’s the point?”
“I know there’s a lot of stress for politicians and there’s a lot of pressure on them, but if they don’t do what they said they would, people lose interest,” she adds.
A lack of faith in elected representatives means only those who are really interested in politics bother to vote.
“Are the people I could vote for powerful enough to change anything? Now I think: what’s the point? And that’s sad because I know that’s the only way you can change it.”
Charlene, who lives in an area of the ward close to the Saddle Junction, says a recent multi-million pound government investment in cycle lanes has done little to boost belief in local decision-makers.
“The changes have made the junction more complicated. There’s other things that it could have been spent on.”
Many who spoke to the LDRS had their own issues with how services are delivered.
For Charlene, it’s the cycle lanes. For others, it’s infrequent public transport links to the town centre.
Pat Meadow, a visitor at the St Mark’s Church community cafe, says she would back any candidate pledging to bring the Shopmobility unit back to Wigan town centre.
Meanwhile John Smith, one of Linda Cooper’s neighbours, fears Wigan is becoming a ‘ghost town’.
“I know the vote matters, but the things they’re saying, I just don’t believe them. They promise you this and you don’t get nothing,” the 68-year-old says.
Although the council does take some flak, there is acknowledgement that it is operating in the wake of significant budget cuts.
Social housing tenants express satisfaction with the council as a landlord but are less forthcoming with praise about its political wing.
To say the borough is a Labour stronghold is an understatement. Currently the ruling group holds 60 of the 75 seats.
The phrase ‘you could put a cow/goat/pig up with a red rosette in Wigan’ is trotted out more than once.
Arguably decades of one-party domination can have a detrimental impact on turnout, because of a perceived lack of change, although ruling bosses will point to their record and consistent results as validation of their policies.
But Vicki Wood, another community cafe visitor, feels her vote wouldn’t make a difference – both nationally and locally.
“I just don’t have any faith in them. One says one thing, another says another,” she says.
“I don’t trust anything they say. Just let them get on with it, there’s always going to be something.”
Yet some express hope. For Malachy Gibbons, 32, Brexit – rather than causing people to lose faith in politics – could be a catalyst.
“I saw something about BBC Parliament having more ratings than MTV now, there has been a change in direction,” he says.
“Perhaps young people are more willing to assess options. Our grandparents’ generation wouldn’t have a clue who anyone was but would just vote for a party.”
Voters should be looking at local candidates rather than political allegiance, he recommends.
“I don’t really see why the party needs to be brought into it, you’re voting for who will do the best for your area.”
And one Douglas couple will definitely be at the polling station.
Les Cunliffe, a former miner, and wife Enid have missed just one election in many decades.
Someone has to be in charge, says Les, 76, a Wigan Warriors season-ticket holder.
“If you don’t have a referee on the pitch, you don’t have a game. That’s the way I see it,” he says, adding that he clearly remembers having the importance of elections impressed upon him in the 1960s.
“We weren’t told how or which way to vote, just that we would be doing it, that it was important,” he says.
There’s no question they will both be voting once again this Thursday, they agree.
But a turnout increase from beyond these walls will be less of a sure thing.