The things these elections should really be about – homes, schools, high streets, care and children’s services – are desperately important, says Dr Jonathan Carr-West. But he argues this crucial layer of social organisation and political activity is being fatally undermined by dysfunctional national politics
It’s local election time again. As this magazine hits the doormat polling stations will be open for business in nearly 250 English councils. Normally that’s a cue for me to write a column emphasising the localness of local elections. I argue against the temptation to read local elections as a glorified opinion poll for national politics and emphasise the importance of the decisions that the councillors elected will be taking locally. That’s all true of course. But this year, of all years, it’s hard to deny that national politics will cast a very heavy shadow over this set of locals.
Certainly, reports from the doorstep are that voters are focusing very heavily on national issues, but the message that these elections send about national politics may be hard to interpret.
Given the profile of the councils where elections are happening and the fact that many are electing in thirds, we’re unlikely to see large numbers of councils changing control, though it will be worth watching some of the more finely-balanced unitaries that have all-out elections such as York, Brighton, Bedford or Stoke on Trent.
Polls are predicting a bad night for the Conservatives and with 134 Tory councils holding elections they certainly seem to have most to lose. But it’s not clear where those Conservative votes would go. In district council areas they’re unlikely to switch to Labour; UKIP are only contesting 16% of seats and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party is targeting the European elections later in the month. The Lib Dems might attract votes from disillusioned Conservative remainers but they start from such a low base in terms of seats that they’re unlikely to make much of an impact on council control.
So barring something extraordinary (although if the last three years have taught us anything it’s precisely that we should not bar the extraordinary), we can expect to see a handful of marginal councils change hands, a few more flip from majority control to NOC, but the big picture in terms of council control probably won’t change that much. Of course, if something extraordinary does happen you’ll find out about it first in the LGiU’s live election coverage coming to you all night for the 8th year running!
Overall vote share might give us more of a sense of the national political mood, but if, as I suspect, the public’s overwhelming feeling is of ‘a plague on all your houses’ then the most telling indicator of all could be turnout. Rock bottom turnout could see these becoming the ‘forgotten elections’ especially if European polls later in the month become the main focus for pro- and anti-Brexit protest votes. And, although nobody’s saying it, we should remember the poor electoral staff who will be scrambling to prepare for these in short order: perhaps the epitome of a thankless task.
Why does that matter? It matters of course, because the things these elections should really be about are desperately important – vital local decisions about homes, schools, high streets, care and children’s services. And this crucial layer of social organisation and political activity is being fatally undermined by dysfunctional national politics. Divided national political parties means weak local parties; divisive national politics threatens local democracy. And we are all poorer for it.
But the local can also be where we start to repair the dysfunction. Real tangible improvements in the things people can see and touch locally are where we begin to remake trust in the political process.
So there’s an irony that while these elections may be a depressing gauge of just how low a base our democracy has reached, the councillors elected in them will be the ones who have to begin the process of building us back up again.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU think-tank