Shifting local elections to the spotlight

By Dr Jonathan Carr-West | 09 May 2022
  • Dr Jonathan Carr-West

As the dust settles on last week’s local elections, what have we learnt? As expected, most coverage has treated them as a giant, complex (and not entirely reliable) opinion poll about national politics.

Seen this way these elections raise as many questions as answers. It was clearly a bad night for the Conservatives with the loss of nearly 500 council seats and a dozen councils including totems Westminster and Wandsworth. Could it have been worse though at this stage in the electoral cycle and given the national political context?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both have cause for satisfaction. Labour will be pleased with gains and that they were hovering around pre-2019 levels of support in the ‘red wall’. The Liberal Democrats will feel they have progressed their ambition to be the main opposition to the Conservatives in the South outside London. Both parties, however, will be wondering if they are yet winning enough or in the right places.

It can be hard to resist, but seeing these elections purely through a national lens misses the point in fundamental ways.

We talk a lot about the influence of national politics on local results but we ignore the way in which local politics shapes national politics. There are two key dimensions to this. Firstly, running places builds experience and credibility for government. If Labour was wise (and it hasn't always been in this regard), it would be using successful Labour councils around the country as the political foundations for a national programme.

Secondly, councillors are the foot soldiers of national politics. They make up a large proportion of the people who deliver leaflets, canvass and raise funds. The loss of 500 seats is a material blow to the Conservatives’ ability to fight a general election. Some of these will need to be replaced by paid staff. There has been speculation that the Prime Minister may be tempted by an early election. Is this now less likely?

And of course, these are real elections with real consequences. Local authorities matter. They provide the services that we all rely on and they have become home to the most innovative responses to sweeping global challenges.

Thats not just about bins and potholes, its about caring for the elderly, safeguarding vulnerable children, providing housing, school places, employment skills, thriving high streets and sustainable local economies; all the things that matter most to us in our everyday lives.

There are real choices to be made about how these services are delivered, what the priorities for funding are and how citizens are engaged with them.

Readers of The MJ understand this of course, but so do voters. At the LGiU, we recently commissioned polling from Ipsos which shows that local government and local councillors were overwhelmingly felt to have the most impact on peoples daily lives and the quality of life in our communities, but they dont always understand just how decisions are made within the council and who makes them.

Of course local elections represent a chance for people to express their views about national politics, but they are so much more than that.

Take Wandsworth or Westminster - until Friday iconic Conservative councils. Even the most avid localist cannot deny that their loss has a national political significance. But there were also local issues, notably housing, council tax and low traffic neighbourhoods which shaped how people voted. So, its not clear that reading these results solely in terms of a national political narrative gives us a totally accurate picture of what’s happening.

Over 6,000 councillors were elected last week in every corner of the country. They are not professional politicians. Many will be working long hours in the evenings and weekends while holding down full-time jobs, others will be sacrificing a comfortable retirement to serve their community. The choices they make will shape the future of the places we live and work in.

It can be a pretty thankless task. That’s why, at LGiU, we founded the Cllr Awards 13 years ago. We’ll be opening nominations for 2022 later this month.

We know that local councillors, local democracy and local decision making are what these elections should really be about. In the final analysis those things are too important to be treated solely as the backdrop to the Westminster soap opera.

Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU


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