Miles BenningtonOperations Director, Chamber UK
As we pick over the local elections results today, people will be asking several important questions. Is this the start of a wave that will carry Labour to Government? Or simply a recoverable midterm kicking? Does the Government need to do more to help people with the cost of living? Is this a judgement on ‘partygate’? Do these patterns match the realignment of leave and remain voters or does it set the trend for something new?
You may have noticed none of these questions have much to do with local or regional government, the actual subject of these elections. The great exception will be Northern Ireland where elections are fought on different issue, one that, both in the past and in the future, will have large effects on UK politics as a whole.
This is not to say that local government doesn’t matter. Social services, roads, council housing, education in some places, parks maintenance, libraries and above all bin collection are important functions of how we govern the spaces we must share. However, in lieu of a local scandal, many people tend to vote in local elections to send a message to Westminster.
Before today Westminster council had only ever been run by the Conservatives since its inception in 1964. This makes some sort of sense. Westminster is traditionally a Tory area and certainly not representative of the country at large. However, in a functioning democracy we would expect the nature of the electorate to change the political parties and for politics to again become competitive.
Take the Thatcher revolution. After a shaky start to the 1980s Conservative government, eventually the central tenets of Thatcherism became essential to building a parliamentary majority in the UK. Tony Blair grasped this essential truth of 1990s British politics and shifted the Labour Party to occupy that space, making them competitive in the process.
So why has this never happened for Westminster Council? Why has some clever young Labourite, at some point between 1964 and 2018, failed to see that the Labour message was just not resonating in Westminster and endeavoured to focus on the issues that mattered locally to St James?!
It would be very rare for any country to have had a single party in power since 1964 and still be considered a democracy. So, what is going on?
Firstly, the issues that matter most to voters are overwhelmingly controlled by Westminster or perhaps buy the Scottish or Welsh Governments. Cost of living, inflation, healthcare funding, taxation, education, environment and climate change, foreign policy and policing are all ultimately responsibilities of the national government. Even local government funding mainly comes via Whitehall, so prioritising sending a message to the real decision makers is entirely rational.
Secondly, local decision makers are often constrained in the decisions they can make. Government guidelines prevent radical local plans from tearing up greenfield land or knocking down certain buildings. The majority of funding for local government is set centrally and even council tax rises are limited by legislation. Again, on the issues you care about, there may be little that local government can do.
Since 1997, every UK government has been committed to tinkering with democracy. We’ve had devolution, referendums, unitary authorities, elected mayors and even police and crime commissioners. There has been lofty talk of making decisions locally and creating alternative power centres for a generation, but what will it actually take to move the political centre of gravity from Westminster?
To find out we must first understand what has made the Westminster system so successful. When people vote in a General Election, they know the names of the parties, the party leaders and in many cases, the candidates. As has been stated above, Westminster is ultimately responsible for just about every layer of UK government (again Northern Ireland excepted), so if you have any strong opinion about particular issues, you can express this in a General Election. That link between what people care about and who they elect is the essence of democracy and is what gives an elected leader a mandate.
Many of the roles created over the past quarter century have limited legitimacy at best. Who is your PCC? Is your council responsible for A roads? What is the Liberal Democrat policy on garden waste recycling?
Democracy is a blunt instrument, ill suited to answering complex questions of how. It is however a great mechanism for “throwing the rascals out” and even though he was nowhere on the ballot, voters can be forgiven for thinking of Boris Johnson as they entered the polling booth yesterday.
So what does it all mean? It means that councillors in many places in the UK owe their election more to luck than their own judgement and sadly their actions will go largely unexamined as they administer significant areas of Government across the UK. It means that despite these being local elections, pundits and journalists are right to spend their time on what this means for the Prime Minister. It means that maybe, the next time someone proposes a referendum or a new round of devolution we need to stop and think not only about the quantity of democracy delivered, but of quality.
Yesterday 29% of eligible Bristolians voted 59% to 41% to scrap the post of elected mayor in their city. What does that mean for the future of devolution in the UK? Who knows?