Last Thursday’s contests were local elections: local polls for local residents to elect local leaders to decide local priorities.
However, as ever, in addition to the national pundits drawing national lessons from these contests, there was considerable evidence that people were often voting on national issues, or at least that local controversies did not quite impact as much upon local results as may have been expected.
Few councils’ stock fell as low as Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s 11 months ago after the Grenfell Tower fire. But Labour gained just two seats in this Conservative stronghold. Elsewhere, Labour’s name was apparently mud in Sheffield City Council after numerous trees were felled under its highways maintenance contract but the party lost a mere three seats. Similarly, in Barnet LBC any local controversy over the council’s performance on environmental services and outsourcing was trumped by national fury over Labour’s record on antisemitism. And in Wigan MBC – often cited within the sector as being just about the finest example of a council devising a new model of how to operate under austerity – the ruling Labour group lost five seats.
Across the country there emerged a pattern of Labour, whose national leadership is far from anti-Brexit, doing well in remain areas and badly in leave areas. It gained seats in London from its already high base and became the largest party in Trafford MBC (whose Tory leader Sean Anstee had been regarded as just about local government’s brightest rising star) but did badly in places including Nuneaton & Bedworth and Swindon BCs and Walsall MBC – the sort of areas a party needs to win to form a government nationally. The Liberal Democrat west London triumphs were in remain strongholds; the party did lose seats (but still held) in leave-voting Sutton LBC.
In an idealised version of localism, there would be no patterns like this. Swings would take place on an area-by-area basis, occurring as a result of the qualities shown by a council’s incumbent leadership and opposing parties. National politics simply wouldn’t come into it. And the turnout in last week’s contest – estimated by professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher to be similar to 2014’s 36% – hardly indicates a totally healthy local democracy.
It is unsurprising that local democracy is sickly. Councils’ power and resources have been eroded. Any Momentum inspired leadership emerging in Haringey LBC may be among those discovering an electoral mandate does not translate into actual room to act. In a truly functioning local democracy people could vote for more council housing, but successive governments have blocked that means of the people exerting power.
We now have a new housing and communities secretary in the shape of James Brokenshire, a widely-respected minister with the ear of Theresa May. While he will be hampered by the government’s Brexit preoccupation and Philip Hammond’s lack of generosity, Mr Brokenshire’s arrival nevertheless presents an opportunity to change course. Mr Brokenshire must put local empowerment and the reinvigoration of local democracy alongside housing at the top of his list of priorities.