Have we this month seen a genuinely local election – or did voters elect people to take local decisions largely on the basis of national issues?
However much we wish it was the former, with local issues and policies the driving force in determining electoral success, the suspicion is that all too often it is the latter that characterises polling day. Democracy and localism are undermined as a result of councillors’ fates hinging on their national party’s performance rather than their individual merits.
Brexit loomed large over the 2019 campaign, resulting in the rejection of the Tory and Labour parties that have respectively led us to Brexit impasse or played the key supporting role in bringing it about. The corresponding rise of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and, in particular, Independents leaves the composition of council chambers looking unlike that of the Commons. The onus is on our new councillors (whether elected because of their local policies or as a protest against national politicians) to show they are champions of localism, with the ability to devise fresh responses to local problems.
Messages were mixed from the media and national parties about what the council elections were about. The words ‘bins’ and ‘potholes’ cropped up frequently – but, while legitimate, do they necessarily convey the most inspiring take on modern local government? Councillors “will be elected to sort out bins, potholes, schools and libraries in their areas”, said the Sun, perhaps overstating councillors’ powers to ‘sort out’ stuff amid austerity and following councils’ defenestration over school control. LGC did not hear the concept of place leadership widely emphasised by many national commentators. Bins and potholes matter hugely, but fit into a wider programme designed to promote fairness, compassion and opportunity: the ‘vision thing’.
One Labour election broadcast centred on the message that “getting money into the hands of ordinary people does a lot more for the economy than giving tax cuts to the millionaires” – a laudable enough message for a general election, but hardly relevant for the local polls. The final Conservative broadcast gave an accurate assessment of councils’ responsibilities before going on to claim Tory councils, unlike those of other parties, “have a proven track record of managing your money wisely”. The content was relevant but generalised.
A national party election broadcast for the local polls is surely an oxymoron. As smart technology allows broadcasters to target content ever more specifically, why shouldn’t a local election ‘broadcast’ feature your area’s local group leader – or potentially even candidates for your ward? Such films could be shared via social media, the main means of spreading political messages to vast swathes of the population.
Local government needs to ask what it can do to ‘localise’ the local elections. While councils have been locked in often unsuccessful battles with ministers for devolution, they have often failed to do what is already in their power to invigorate localism. How can they build a new platform to get local candidates’ views across? To do this would hopefully obscure national parties’ messages on how councils should be run. It should become a core function of councils’ comms departments to give candidates of all parties equal help to make their pitch. It is likely that the resultant council chamber would be far more energised, with buy-in and recognition from more of the local population.
All too often it feels like local democracy is some dirty little secret within local government, hidden away in some dusty corner of council websites. It is often hard to uncover information about the political composition of council chambers and which parties have gained or lost seats. Amid the decline of local papers, it is the duty of the council to actively promote local democracy and explain (in a non-partisan manner) whether and how things are changing.
It is curious that local government, a sector which has innovated so much in recent times, has been so reticent to grasp the nettle when it comes to promoting democracy, the one thing that gives it legitimacy above any other local body.