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Educate, excite and engage

Emma Maier
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Driving down interest in local democracy will ultimately hurt democracy nationally

The Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement makes difficult reading. The report has, since 2004, benchmarked the public’s perceived knowledge of politics, along with levels of interest, satisfaction and engagement. The ninth report points to growing alienation.

Three-quarters say the governance system needs ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of improvement

Those ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics fell from 57% in 2011 to 41% this year. Three-quarters say the governance system needs ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of improvement, and If there were an election tomorrow only 48% would be sure to vote.

The government’s professed focus on devolving to the lowest level possible and its Big Society ambitions have been matched by a decline in the proportion of people undertaking voluntary work, down 8 points over the past two years to 21%.

Perhaps most worrying, young people are less likely to think that getting involved in politics can make a difference compared with their counterparts in 2004-05 - down 8 points to 31% -perhaps influenced by factors such as the abolition of education maintenance allowance, increases to university fees and cuts to youth services. Such feelings of impotence are a grave concern. As a fellow commissioner on Leeds City Council’s Commission on the Future of Local Government commented at our latest meeting this week, “powerlessness is the enemy of democracy”.

Ministers would do well to dwell on the point. The Hansard audit found respondents had more confidence in their ability to influence the way in which their local area is run (56%) than in their ability to influence the national picture (32%). Every time ministers wage war on councils in the media - whether by playing to common misconceptions, claiming credit for councils’ successes or giving the impression that they can ‘fix’ their failings - they risk damaging confidence. Driving down interest in local democracy will ultimately hurt democracy nationally.

Politicians at all levels, in particular via the party system, face a significant challenge: how to educate, excite and engage.

One of the issues that will be vital to that conversation is the funding of adult social care. Demographic changes mean more older people with more complex needs.

In the medium term some councils may be faced with a care bill that matches or even outstrips their income. In a worst-case scenario, this raises a question about the viability of continuing to provide universal services - a serious problem given that many citizens’ awareness extends only to bin collections, street scene and library services.

The LGA and ADASS are to be commended for their campaign asking the PM and other party leaders to back implementation of the Dilnot recommendations.

The government’s line is that “Dilnot provided an interesting answer to the wrong question”. It is true that beyond Dilnot there is considerable work on the funding shortfall. But the proposals are a key part of the answer, not least in terms of engaging with ‘self-funders’ as taxpayers, service users and voters.

The PM has previously indicated that social care is an important focus. He must ensure the Treasury comes to the same understanding.

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