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Tony Travers: National parties' mess could damage local politics

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The local elections season provides a timely reminder of just what a mess the major British political parties are in – mostly at the national level.

Labour has suffered a damaging and growing scandal resulting from links between parts of the party and anti-semitic individuals and organisations. The Conservatives have recently enjoyed a pause in their Brexit-related civil war. But that will kick off again soon.

The Liberal Democrats are flatlining in national polls, with their leadership unable to prosper from the failures of the other two parties. Even the previously glorious Scottish Nationalists are in the doldrums, while Ukip appear sunk.

Given the centralised nature of our constitution, we must hope our national politicians sort themselves out

At the local level, politics and government carries on in a broadly efficient and rational way. True, there are concerns about Momentum’s influence in some Labour councils, especially after this year’s elections. But this is not the 1980s: any Corbyn-themed council will find Mrs Thatcher’s restraints on revenue and capital spending forcing them to close libraries and cut social care just like everyone else.

None of our national parties has the faintest idea how to sort out Brexit or, indeed, to tackle the challenge of a longer-term unsustainable public expenditure and tax squeeze. Either a government will have to put up taxes for everyone, or the state will have to be cut-back. Yet no senior politician can directly address the real choices.

This time last year, Theresa May announced her ill-fated general election. The result plunged the political system into a continuous struggle about the direction of the country. Local electors will cast their votes in the middle of unparalleled upheaval and uncertainty.

This year’s contests are mostly in London, metropolitan and unitary councils where the deepest cuts have been made to central grants. Spending has fallen by 30 or 40% in some areas.

The public has started to notice that the original five-year period of austerity is now stretching towards 10 or more. Opposition to cuts is growing, as even ministers acknowledge. Council tax increases are now being encouraged by a government that championed zero local tax increases.

Given the centralised nature of our constitutional arrangements, we must hope that our national politicians sort themselves out. And soon. Local politics remains largely moderate and sensible.

But if the example from above carries on as it has recently, damage will spread to the rest of the body politic.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London


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