The next UK General Election will be held on 8 June 2017 – just over 2 years since the last one despite the establishment of 5 year parliamentary terms under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The argument made by Prime Minister Theresa May was that this was,
“…the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead”.
Yet will this guarantee certainty? Well, one certainty seems to be the ever increasing popularity, by politicians, of elections and referendums. A quick search shows how many elections have been held across the UK since 2010 with a particular peak of elections and significant referendums since 2014.
Elections since 2010:
2010 UK General Election
2010 English Local Elections (32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 76 second-tier district authorities, 20 unitary authorities and various Mayoral posts)
2011 UK Voting System Referendum
2011 Welsh Devolution Referendum
2011 Northern Ireland Local Elections
2011 English Local Elections (36 Metropolitan boroughs, 194 Second-tier district authorities, 49 unitary authorities and various mayoral post)
2012 Scottish Local Elections
2012 Welsh Local Elections
2012 English Local Elections (28 English local authorities, three mayoral elections including the London mayoralty)
2012 London Assembly Elections
2013 English Local Elections (27 non-metropolitan county councils, eight unitary authorities and 2 mayoral elections)
2014 European Parliament Election
2014 Scottish Independence Referendum
2014 Northern Ireland Local Elections
2014 English Local Elections (32 London boroughs, 36 metropolitan boroughs, 74 district/borough councils, 20 unitary authorities and a number of mayoral elections)
2015 UK Parliament Election
2015 English Local Elections (36 metropolitan boroughs, 194 second-tier districts, 49 unitary authorities and 6 mayoral elections)
2016 English Local Elections (124 local councils and 4 mayoral elections)
2016 Scottish Parliament Election
2016 Welsh Parliament Election
2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election
2016 London Assembly Election
2016 EU Referendum
2017 Scottish Local Elections
2017 Welsh Local Elections
2017 English Local Elections (27 county councils, 7 unitary authorities, 1 metropolitan borough, 8 mayoral elections)
2017 UK Parliament Election
NB: Also 31 by-elections between 2010-2017 and many community council elections.
It could be argued that this is a good thing. It shows the vibrancy of our democracy and the increasing voice of citizens in influencing government policy. However, it poses many significant challenges for those who work in public policy and administration: the cost of electoral administration; the opportunity cost of elections and the risk of voter fatigue.
Not only do elections involve a lot of political planning and campaigning but they also require significant administration including the training and management of polling staff and count staff. An election is not something that can easily happen on a whim. It requires a lot of planning, coordination and, importantly, investment.
A second issue with elections is that they divert attention away from the development of public policy and the delivery of public services. Since 2014 in particular there have been significant votes involving all UK Political Parties including the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the 2015 UK General Election, the 2016 EU Referendum and now the 2017 General Election. There is a huge opportunity cost involved in these major election campaigns – whilst campaigning and voting takes place our political representative, public officials and public service professionals are subject to purdah rules and must divert their energies from public service delivery to the major operational challenges of an election.
The other significant cost of this is that it risks leading to voter fatigue and apathy. The immediate reaction from many to the UK General Election announcement was fairly muted. It isn’t currently clear how the public will respond to the announcement and what the resultant turnout will be. But what is clear is that at some point the votes must be counted – and the government(s) must govern.