Saturday voting `may end apathy'

SATURDAY voting for next year's local and European elections is being canvassed by Whitehall as ministers ponder how to tackle voter apathy.It would certainly be a break with tradition.

SATURDAY voting for next year's local and European elections is being canvassed by Whitehall as ministers ponder how to tackle voter apathy.

It would certainly be a break with tradition. Thursday is UK polling day, a hang-over from time when, certainly in the south of England, shops closed for a half-day, thus allowing workers time to vote.

Richard Howitt, Labour Euro MP for the East of England, would welcome the switch. Indeed, he would go further and have polling spread over the whole weekend, subject to negotiations with religious bodies.

"We must drive up turnout, otherwise we face a democratic deficit," says Mr Howitt. "However, I'm not sure if next year will see a change. The Electoral Commission is seeking an extension of electronic and postal voting and it would be difficult to judge the success of these initiatives if the voting was changed."

In 1999, when the European Parliament seats were last contested, fewer than 25% of people bothered to take part. It's unlikely, however, that switching days would make much difference – the British public is so turned-off by Europe, and don't understand what their MEPs do, that it will take a massive effort by the political parties to encourage the voters to take an interest.

THERE'S a distinct possibility that by the turn of the decade, the political parties will hold most of their conferences in big city venues as the "charms" of Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool pale with conference organisers.

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In days of old, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Glasgow hosted the great conferences. But as the conferences turned into big business in the television era – attracting up to 6,000 delegates including MPs with spouses and staffs, journalists, technicians and lobbyists – so the "three Bs" have become the natural home to the political parties.

The modern fad for going to the seaside out-of-season is based partly also on cost. The theory is that smaller hotels and guest houses offer cheaper rates to the delegates, who have to pay their own way, while the larger hotels offer discounts for block bookings.

But the faded glory of Brighton and Blackpool no longer make them attractive venues for delegates while substandard rooming houses in the mean streets leading off the promenades are little short of depressing.

As for the hotels, I suspect Blackpool signed its own death warrant for Tories last week. Six nights bed and breakfast in a box room at the top of the Imperial Hotel for Iain Duncan Smith's personal press officer cost £900, and she didn't sign for any extras.

Certainly Bury St Edmunds Tory MP David Ruffley agrees that a city conference would be a good idea. And he also thinks it's about time the conference was held at weekends, to allow working men and women the opportunity to take part in the political process.

"A weekend Tory conference in Birmingham would be highly popular with those activists in the party who have to earn a living in the professions," says Mr Ruffley. "They could pop up for the day without having to stay overnight – Birmingham is easily accessible and has excellent meetings venues."

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