The problem with local elections? National politics

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When Jeremy Vine dances across his election map at some point on Friday, and declares it’s been a good night for the Tories, or a bad day for Labour, what he’s actually saying is ‘Local democracy is failing.’

Because local politics should be about local issues. It should be about people engaging with the issues affecting them locally and getting the chance to choose between candidates who, while loosely representing political parties, are slugging it out not on political colours, but important local matters.

National politicians, however, don’t seem to see it that way. And for as long as that doesn’t change, then the chances of people really engaging with their right to vote in local election in the sorts of numbers we saw in previous decades remains slim. The game of politics wins, the strength of local communities diminishes.

Local politicians always wring their hands at low turnouts in local elections. But what do they expect when the prime minister uses phrases like this:

 

“These local elections provide a clear choice – the competence of a strong Conservative council who will keep taxes down with quality local services, against the disarray of the rest.”

Summed up in one neat sentence there is the biggest challenge facing local politics – the determination of national politicians to annexe local elections as part of the national political debate.

A cursory glance of the Rotten Borough column of Private Eye will show you that Cameron’s assurance that you get good Tory councils and bad non-Tory councils is rather inaccurate.

Cameron is far from the first national politician to try and turn a local election into a referendum on national affairs. Ed Miliband tried it for almost five years as he sought to give the coalition a good kicking. And while Labour did do very well in successive local elections, it didn’t add up to success in the elections which Labour voters would argue really matter – the general election.

Before him, Gordon Brown found his premiership hanging on the outcome of local elections. If local elections were being fought properly, about local issues and local accountability, the results of the local elections should no more have had a bearing on Brown’s time in number 10 than the results of his beloved Raith Rovers.

The national media has played a role in the nationalisation of local elections too. In today’s Guardian, the internal Labour Party war over Ken Livingstone’s Nazi comments is linked to Labour’s possible success in local elections. While I can see why it might have a bearing on the London Mayoral elections, is it really fair for a councillor in Liverpool, Llandudno, Leyland or Ludlow to fear losing an election because of the comments of an abstract Labour dinosaur?

Local politicians also have a role to play in this too, and the pending Police and Crime Commissioner elections are the best example I can give of the two layers of politics letting local voters down.

Created by the coalition government, the PCCs best claim to fame is that they universally attracted some of the lowers turnouts for their inaugural elections in 2012. Defenders of the vote claimed it was because the vote was held in the Autumn, when it was cold.

Bobbins. The vote failed because people didn’t buy into the idea and, above all, the PCCs deferred in the main to their party machines and, in effect, turned the election of a PCC into a ballot on the nation’s current view of the main political parties. Four years on, and the only thing I know about Labour’s PCC in Lancashire is that he was investigated for fiddling his expenses (no charges were brought).

Clive Grunshaw has never once pushed a letter through my door explaining what he’s done, and I’ve no idea what difference he has made to policing in Lancashire at a time when the real changes have been driven by the Home Office through police funding cuts.

The only communication I have received in relation to the PCC elections came from home secretary Theresa May, who started by praising the difference PCCs had made:

In the last three and a half years Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners have shown that they are vital to making local communities safer. They have had the power to hire good chief constables and to fire bad ones, they have set policing priorities for the local area and they have overseen budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds. And in that time, crime is down by more than a quarter.

Then, she told me I should vote for the Conservative candidate – not the incumbent Grunshaw who presumably she included in that praise above:

With such an important role Lancashire needs someone who will take the job seriously – to work with the Government to cut crime, spend taxpayers’ money wisely and to keep the local community safer and more secure.

Only Andrew Pratt will do that for Lancashire.

That’ll be the Conservative candidate then, who actually calls himself Andy. I’ve yet to see anything from Andrew/Andy about what he’d do to make me feel safer in Lancashire. As Theresa May has shown, it’s not as if his party hasn’t got an email address for me is it?

That email pretty much sums up the problem with local elections. On one hand, we have national politicians and parties trying to hoover everything up to make it relevant to the Westminster bubble, while on the other we have local politicians seemingly happy to rely on the national narrative rather than standing on their own two feet and engaging with voters.

It’s essentially the remote control of local democracy by national political parties – and it’s dangerous.

It’s a double-edged sword, of course. It’s a crest of a wave to ride when your party is popular at a national level, but an unfair terminator of political careers when your party isn’t.

 

A long-serving council leader I know, Sir Bill Taylor, lost his seat on Blackburn with Darwen Council in 2004 to an unknown Lib Dem candidate. The Lib Dems made no bones about the fact they chased after his seat on the strength that Sir Bill was Jack Straw’s election agent in Blackburn, and turned what should have been a vote on the bins, the schools and the roads into a snap judgement on the war in Iraq.

It was against this back drop of deferring local elections to national party referenda that the BNP were able to make so many gains. While their beliefs are abhorrent, they did what other parties should have been doing – listening to local people and responding to their concerns. The fact the BNP did so through essentially making stuff up is not the point here – they made ground because people felt the BNP listened to them, whereas the other candidates rarely made contact.

I was in Belfast on Monday. On many lamp posts were the sort of political head-and-shoulder photo posters which I remember as commonplace when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. I also remember living in an area of Chorley where the local Lib Dem parish councillors sent monthly newsletters about what they were doing for the area. Parish councillors! Every month! In the last decade, I’ve received one – ONE – leaflet from a councillor.

On Thursday night and Friday afternoon we will see swathes of councillors losing or gaining seats not on the strength of their local campaigning, but because of the political mood towards parties in Westminster.

Many will have themselves to blame as much as anyone else. But until the Westminster elite stop playing war games with the local elections to suit their battles in the big house on the banks of the Thames, local democracy, and local communities, will continue to be the big losers.

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