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Tony Travers: big two parties face woe till central/local relations reset

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This month’s local elections in England and Northern Ireland proved good for smaller and Independent parties and relatively less successful for the major ones. In England, the Conservatives had their worst seats loss since 1995, while Labour also fell back.

It is worth remembering that just two years after those 1995 results, the Tories were out of office for 13 years, while Labour have lost seats in three out of the past four years, which is unprecedented for the major Opposition party in England. Ukip also shed seats. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and, most surprisingly, Independents of various kinds made overall gains of 1,559 – the best for ‘not-Conservative or Labour’ since at least 1977, and probably ever.

In Northern Ireland, the big winners were the centrist Alliance Party, whose vote share rose by almost 5% and who gained 21 seats. The DUP lost seats (though on a slightly higher vote share) while Sinn Féin held their seat total on a reduced vote share. The Green Party, like the Alliance, gained vote share and seats. As in England, there was evidence of the electorate shifting towards broadly moderate and centrist parties rather than to the extremes.

Of course local elections are about refuse collection, libraries, streets and social care. But there can be no doubt that hundreds of decent councillors lost their seats because of perceived democratic failures at Westminster. The civil wars besetting both the Conservatives and Labour, overlaid by Brexit paralysis, have renewed the downward drift of major party voting. These parties’ vote share has dropped from 97% in the 1955 general election to a national equivalent of just 56% in this year’s locals, under John Curtice’s methodology or 62% under the Rallings and Thrasher’s. In the forthcoming European elections, the Con+Lab vote may fall below 35%.

This nationwide phenomenon will have repercussions for local government. Conservative MPs will have seen their party’s dire performance and will judge something needs to be done both about Brexit and, possibly, about the longer-term impacts of austerity. Labour MPs, similarly, will presumably now see that the endless preoccupation with, and failure to deliver, Brexit is toxic for them too.

It was revealing that Damian Green, a former senior minister and friend of the prime minister, recently published proposals for a solution to the policy problem of older people’s social care. Successive governments have failed to deliver a policy for such care, with frequent delays to the publication of a long-expected consultation paper on the subject. But adult care is not the only part of the State where there are problems.

Most obviously, children’s social care is being squeezed by the reduction in overall council spending. Adult care is now, effectively, ring-fenced and is likely to remain so. Planning, environmental services, transport, roads, trading standards, leisure and arts have faced reductions of 50% or more in real terms. The government will be forced to conduct its forthcoming spending review without a long-term solution in place for social care funding.

This tale of woe, coupled with the ‘plague on both of you’ political message sent by the recent council elections, begs an important question as to whether local government as a whole can be given a sustainable, long-term, funding base. Until and unless local authority funding is separated from total managed expenditure and Treasury tax control, councils will continue to be used as a ‘safety valve’ when it comes to balancing the national budget books.

Can Brexit be used as a justification to re-set the financial relationship between central and local government so as to allow politicians in counties, cities, district and villages to make their own decisions free of annual and detailed intervention from Whitehall? If not, the major political parties are likely to experience an ever-less friendly electorate in coming polls at all levels.

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