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Turnout of 30% is feared in many election areas

TOMORROW'S local elections are heading towards one of the lowest turnouts in recent history, fuelling speculation it will damage faith in councillors and hasten an overhaul of Scotland's 32 authorities.

ELECTIONS: A COUNCIL WORKER CHECKS BALLOT BOXES
ELECTIONS: A COUNCIL WORKER CHECKS BALLOT BOXES

Parties and observers are predicting a turnout of 30% in many places in the first stand-alone council elections in nearly two decades – compared to the Scotland-wide figure of 54% from 2007 when they were coupled with the Holyrood poll.

Hundreds of thousands fewer people are expected to cast their vote this time, as in 1995, when 45% of Scotland's adult population turned out for the last stand-alone local elections.

Sources within Labour, whose former working class industrial heartlands are among the areas traditionally with the lowest turnout, predict some areas will barely have 25%.

Fears of voter apathy have prompted the main parties to recruit record numbers of activists and volunteers, particularly in key battlegrounds like Glasgow, to mobilise the electorate, offering transport to polling stations and even reminding some households that elections are being held.

A ban on party posters in many areas of Scotland – on the basis they are often not taken down – has had an impact on public awareness.

There are suggestions a low turnout could signal a loss of faith in local councils, and see the number of councillors reduced or spark debate on whether introducing Scottish mayors could energise local government.

Professor Murray Pittock, head of the College of Arts at Glasgow University, said he believed a turnout of 25% was realistic even in major battlegrounds like Glasgow and Edinburgh, adding the "experiment" of free-standing local elections did not appear to have generated great interest in local issues.

He said: "It's possible we could be looking to have changes, things such as elected mayors, which have invigorated local politics in London and other cities in England where there tends to be more of an engagement with local politics. It's worth having a debate on issues such as city regions in Scotland.

"There's also a concern a low turnout would reflect badly on councillors, that they're not very good and are overpaid. In reality they work very long hours."

Ross Martin, director of independent think-tank the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, said: "If the vote falls below 30% it becomes a crisis in support of local government as an entity, and there will be questions about its legitimacy. In the cities, the number of councillors could easily be reduced with a smaller group holding an elected mayor or provost to account. In other areas the number of councillors could be cut by devolving responsibility to community level.

"What price democracy if so few people take part?"

But leading expert on elections Professor John Curtice said he believed turnouts in Scottish elections were on the way back up. He said: "The question would be on local government reorganisation, and this SNP administration has not been active on the legislative front and there's no sense that they're even thinking of that. I think by the time of the next election it'll be more of the same."

One concern is that in Glasgow a high attendance figure at Celtic's home game with St Johnstone could impact on turnout, prompting the club to appeal to its fans to vote before going to the evening match.

Rangers last night followed suit, urging its supporters to vote, despite not having a match that clashes with the election.

Labour MSP James Kelly said: "Local elections are critical to people's lives – running schools, council services and social work. There is a fear that turnout will be low tomorrow, so Labour has put in place a huge effort to knock on doors and talk to as many people as possible. We have firm commitments from thousands of activists from across Scotland to be out working on polling day knocking doors, delivering leaflets and working hard to get as many people as possible voting."

Meanwhile, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland has welcomed the fact there is not a single uncontested seat in Scottish local authorities. Wales has 95, denying 140,000 voters a say.

In the last set of Scottish local elections run under first past the post in 2003, Scotland had 61 uncontested seats.

LibDem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will make a final push for votes with Scottish leader Willie Rennie today.

The pair are due to visit the Whitlock Energy Collaboration Centre at Carnegie College's Rosyth campus in Fife, and will speak to apprentices learning to build wind turbines.

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