Why we should all worry about national media and politicians dropping the local from local elections

posterIn the days before the death of Baroness Thatcher, the Labour Party unveiled its campaign poster for the local elections (above).

Only you’d be hard-pushed to know it was about the local elections. It wouldn’t look out of place in the general election but for a local election – where you and I go and vote for the person we want to represent us in the local Town Hall – it seems slightly odd.

Odd, of course, only if you still believe local elections are about local issues and deciding who runs the local council. Increasingly local elections appear to be little more than a state-funded snapshot opinion poll – a referendum on the government of the day.

There are some obvious – indeed, almost understandable – reasons for this. If you’re the Labour Party, what better way to keep momentum going than to stick another bloody nose on the coalition government at a time of budget cuts, austerity and increasing hardship.

For journalists seeking a neat way to give an overview of hundreds of different elections which don’t really have a bearing on each other, it’s a neat solution too.

But there are a number of problems with this approach – the biggest one being the disconnect it subsequently creates between voter and political system.

Pretty much throughout Labour’s last decade in power, it was dealt bloody nose after bloody nose at the local elections. For a day or two, there would be talk of change, but very little did change. A protest vote which becomes the popular vote isn’t much use if it doesn’t actually change anything.

It’s a tactic which Ed Miliband has tried to use ever since gaining office as leader of the opposition. Using Wordle, I’ve generated the following charts showing his local election launch speeches for 2011, 2012 and this year:

Ed Miliband's 2013 local election launch speech

Ed Miliband’s 2013 local election launch speech

edmilibsnd2012

Ed Miliband’s 2012 local election launch speech

Ed Miliband's 2011 local election campaign speech

Ed Miliband’s 2011 local election campaign speech

Look how small the word council is in each. The 2011 speech has cuts as the biggest word. This was in the year when the coalition cuts on councils were being frontloaded. Thousands made redundant in Town Halls, services axed left, right and centre – and Miliband accepted this free gift with big references to communities, services  and local.

2012 is a different story. Government is the word dominating, and by this year it’s all about Britain, Government and people – a generic speech to hijack the local elections as a moment-in-time poll reflecting the view from the country of Westminster.

labourlocalelectionpledgecard1

Regardless of whether or not I agree with the poster at the top, claiming that Cameron is bunging millionaires at the expense of the rest of us, I do know that how I vote in the Lancashire County Council elections on  May 2 will have little bearing on what the Government does next.

Likewise, Miliband’s decision to launch his latest pledge card – the party calls them ‘action cards’ in an attempt to distance them from the famous pledge cards which Tony Blair so brilliantly used to sum a manifesto in 100 words in 1997 – at the time of the local elections shows Labour is looking at 2015.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, David Cameron is trying to focus on local issues:

cameron2013

 

 

But he was also peddling a local government-focused lined when in opposition. In 2008, his launch speech was like this:

David Cameron's 2008 local election launch speech

David Cameron’s 2008 local election launch speech

Whether or not Cameron focusing on councils in his speech – admittedly it was packed with references to what Gordon Brown was doing wrong too – made any difference to the national sense that it was a referendum, we’ll never know. But I’d rather a politician at least try and press the case for his party’s strength in Town Halls than just simply drop the word local from local elections.

On one hand, it of course makes sense that a national party leader would seek to make national party points during local elections – how else is he going to be of interest to the country as a whole? But that’s perhaps the problem – maybe there shouldn’t be a place for our national politicians in the local elections.

Setting the debate at a national level damages local democracy. Have you had an election leaflet through the door? I live in a ward which is Tory at county council level, Labour at a borough council level and sits in a constituency which was seen by Sky News in 2005 as so important to determining the outcome of the national elections it based Kay Burley here for the entire campaign. (And she’s much nicer in real life than everyone makes out). Yet I’ve not had a peep out of any candidate.

I have no idea what Labour would do if it retook control of County Hall in Preston, which it lost in 2009 in a defeat which the local leadership blamed on a backlash against MPs’ expenses (although I suspect it was more to do with Labour’s poor showing at the time).

Former Labour council leader Hazel Harding – ousted in 2009 from her role – summed it up well to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph at the time:

But Hazel isn’t bitter. “That’s just the way it goes,” she said. “We benefited in the 80s. We were going around winning seats that we wouldn’t expect to win because people didn’t like Margaret Thatcher. They were never going to get rid of her by voting Labour in Rossendale, but that’s how it goes. Win some, lose some.”

I have no idea whether the Conservatives are proud of their record in office at County Hall, although Lancashire has demonstrated well over the last decade why the national Tory/Labour/Lib Dem split doesn’t really bring any benefits to those associated with the parties at a local level.

Labour in Lancashire complained vocally about what they considered poor funding settlements in the early 2000s, but Tony Blair’s government never listened. Likewise, the current Tory administration is currently angry with their Tory brothers in London over the plans for more Academy schools which sit outside of their control. Current county council leader Geoff Driver describes Michael Gove as a bully. Now there’s a sign of a healthy working relationship.

I perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of door-knocking canvassers of letterbox-clattering election leaflets – if national politicians turn it into another round of their Punch-and-Judy politics, what difference can leaflets make at a local level?

And that’s the point at which communities suffer. At my old house, about five minutes from where I live now, both councillors were Tory. One was superb, and always returned calls and emails promptly. His party politics didn’t matter, but his work for the community would always get my vote. The other never returned calls, and the hard-working Tory attempted to justify this by saying his colleague focused on another part of the ward. She, needless to say, wouldn’t get my vote.

That’s how it should be. Local councillors held accountable by a local electorate based on what they’ve done for the local community. Not, as in the case of former Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Bill Taylor, ousted from office because of a national issue – in his case, being a Labour councillor in a mainly Asian ward in 2004 made the Iraq war an easy issue for the Lib Dems to win with. The fact that Coun Zamir Khan, who replaced Cllr Taylor, has gone on to represent his area for almost a decade is incidental, given his party leader, Paul Browne, boasted at the time:

“Bill Taylor has only gone because of Iraq. Simple.”

One of the unfortunate consequences for Labour councillors arriving into office on the back of a national protest vote is that they have to deliver the cuts being imposed from Whitehall.  Another is that you end up with near one-state councils ruled by just one party, a point raised by the Electoral Reform Society last week.

The party in control sees no issue in this, citing a free and democratic election, but if the opposition isn’t there and local issues don’t figure in local elections, we have a very dangerous problem: A disconnected electorate not seeing their vote making the difference they expected, receiving services from a Town Hall whose political colour is chosen not by how good the councillors are, but by what is going on in Westminster.

For local journalists and local politicians everywhere, that should be a frightening prospect we must ensure doesn’t become commonplace.

PS…. In case you’re wondering what Nick Clegg’s Wordle for his year looks like:

clegg2013It appears they are big on tax. I suspect this Wordle isn’t doing them justice.

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