A manifesto for saving local democracy (a very, very long read!)

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Last week, I watched in realtime as more people than ever before (in the digital news era at least) engaged with stories about local elections. The number of page views generated from articles about the elections doubled when compared to 2018.

Of course, volume of articles was up significantly thanks the the main variable between 2018 and 2019 – the addition of Local Democracy Reporters, some 50 plus of the 150 are employed by Reach in newsrooms around the UK.

What you won’t find – generally – in this local, on the ground coverage is constant references to Brexit, or what the local elections tell us about Brexit. Local elections are meant to be about local issues … but at times it has felt as though this has been forgotten by the world at large.

Even if voter turnout didn’t shift much between 2018 and 2019, the page view figures we saw showed there was an appetite for detailed coverage of local elections, set in a local context.

Quick stat: More than 2million people used a widget created by our data unit to see how the elections had gone in their area. Based on the areas Reach is in, that quite likely means in many areas more people were checking to see who was their councillor than had actually voted. Worrying? I think so.

I have this nagging feeling that we’re watching local democracy die. There’s an interest in local council activities, but still two thirds of people don’t vote. Council decisions matter to people, but people clearly don’t feel voting makes a difference.

And for the third who do vote, well, all of a sudden your vote on what should be ostensibly local issues suddenly becomes a snap referendum on the government of the day and, as an icing on the cake this year, Brexit.

Of course, it’s quite possible that national issues do influence some people in local elections. But that’s not the purpose of local elections. And if the dominating narrative after every local election is not what it means in one of 400-plus town halls where the votes were counted, but what it hypothetically means for Westminster, what incentive is there for anyone involved in local elections to even try?

Don’t blame Brexit (this time anyway)

Brexit hasn’t caused this problem – but it has exacerbated it. When Andrea Jenkyns, the Brexit-supporting backbencher, stood up in PMQs this week and blamed the loss of 1,300 council seats on Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, the media didn’t go ‘hang on, they’re meant to be local elections.’

Instead, she became the story for calling on her leader to quit. (I’m sure the good people of Morley are delighted she chose party politics and not any of the local issues people really care about as her PMQs question, but that’s another story).

The fact no one narrative can be drawn from the local elections in the context of national government, or indeed Brexit, proves how futile taking one set of elections and trying to apply them to another is futile, and can only be used to support self interest. Quite how a shift to the Lib Dems across the country is a vote for a faster Brexit is beyond me.

2019’s reaction to the local elections has felt like most extreme debasing of local government yet in pursuit of studying the national context. Save for the BBC’s brilliant Chris Mason on Brexitcast, I’m struggling to think of a national news broadcast about the local elections which didn’t mention the fact that local elections are supposed to be about millions of local things.

Time and again on 5Live, Sky News and other national news outlets, I saw the proclamations of politicians about what the local elections meant go unchallenged. Not once did I hear a journalist say: “Aren’t local elections meant to be about local things?”

Westminster’s play thing

Councils have long been the play thing of Government. Labour in the 2000s inserted quangos left, right and centre around councils, making life very tough for councils to get things done. John Prescott was desperate to bring in regional assemblies, but such was his commitment to local democracy that when he realised he was going to lose, he canned the referendum on the issue in Yorkshire and the North West, leaving only the North East with electoral permission to tell him to do one with his third tier of Government.

More recently, elected mayors have been foisted on some areas, and fought for in others. Police and Crime Commissioners have added, well, another chance to vote for someone who then doesn’t talk to the public for four years. But these pale into insignificance compared to austerity.

Across the UK, billions have been slashed from local government budgets, as councils have suffered the worst of the Tory-led austerity measures. Shortly before the general election in 2010, David Cameron praised town halls for being far more efficient than Whitehall, and said civil servants had much to learn from their more cost conscious local colleagues.

He and George Osborne then embarked on a wrecking spree of the like never seen before, and largely, the response was muted. Yes, we’ve seen campaigns around the country over specific closures or changes, but if the NHS, for example, had seen the same scale of cuts, I can’t help but think the protests would have been louder, and lasted longer.

Local government’s weakness in that sense is that it is fragmented. It doesn’t have one over-arching narrative people can get behind, or which can be reported on. But it’s strength is also that fragmentation, that it is local … if only we support local democracy to be local.

Cheap shots

Jenkyns’ ‘it’s all about us’ moment in PMQs is not the first woeful abuse of local elections, although it is one of the most blatant. James Purnell, back when he was in Government, used Labour’s poor showing in June 2009 local elections to try and force Gordon Brown to resign. It backfired spectacularly. Ed Miliband on several occasions urged people to express their dis-satisfaction with David Cameron through the local elections. They then failed to listen to Miliband in the 2015 general election. Oops.

I know a council leader who was running an authority very well, bringing in cash which was helping to regenerate it when he was suddenly beaten in a safe, inner-town, deprived Labour ward. Why? The Lib Dems made the local elections about the Iraq war, in a mainly Asian constituency. The Lib Dems won, the Labour council leader, also then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s election agent, was out. So it’s not new.

The warning signs of this disconnect between people’s interest in council news and local democracy have been there for years. I witnessed the sickening sight of the BNP being elected in Burnley, and then one got in in Blackburn. The national narrative bordered on ‘thick racist northerners’ at the time, and Labour’s response was to send Tony Blair to Labour’s northern heartlands and urge people to vote Tory if they couldn’t vote Labour, to keep the BNP out. Because people love being told how to vote by politicians.

The people who voted BNP weren’t (in the main) racist. They were fed up, and so disconnected from local politics that when a candidate rocked up offering new ideas, admittedly laced with lies, prejudice and undertones of racism which were dressed up as ‘honest views,’ people felt they might as well use they vote to try something different. Time quickly taught those who voted that the BNP were racist, and they didn’t change anything. And that was almost 20 years ago. We didn’t respond to that then, either in Westminster, or the media.

A win win for all involved – but not the voters

The problem with this ‘it’s really about us, you know, us in Westminster’ approach, which has been years in the making, is that it corrodes local efforts to be elected. When a local party loses councillors, it’s very sad for those involved, but increasingly it’s blamed on the ‘national picture.’ Easy excuse.

Friends who are councillors tell me that this is the year when national issues – Brexit – dominated on the doorstep, but how many candidates did you see on your doorstep ahead of May 2’s vote this year? Me: 0. Come to mention it, how many properly local, campaigning leaflets did you get? Me: 1.

If you’re charitable, it’s that if two thirds of the doors you knock at won’t turn out to vote, why bother knocking or killing trees to share your thoughts on paper. If you’re not feeling so cheery, then the defeatist approach tolerated by the understanding optimists serves to just compound the errors of the party leaders who try to make the local elections about them.

Local democracy, not local politics

The next logical step is that, over time,  fewer and fewer people will stand for election, and those who do will come from a narrower section of society, and already motivated by party politics rather than what we’ve seen in the past, which often felt like loose association to a movement rather than a passionate advocate of a political belief.

Truth be told, the most corrosive thing that can happen to local democracy is that is becomes driven by party politics. It needs to be driven by local issues and local people, with candidates coalescing loosely around a party’s broad beliefs and values, rather than joining a party and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the political rival of the day to be able to say their party took council X.

All too often, full council meetings are lengthened because parties want to discuss political motions on the issues of the day. A council condemning the government for not taking action in Syria, for example, might make those pushing the motion feel good about themselves. It might score a cheap political point and make a headline. It doesn’t, however, represent councillors doing what they’re supposedly elected to do: Make decisions and run local council services.

Across the country, especially in Labour, we are seeing local associations divided between the different factions which dominate the national party agenda. People who share the beliefs of the majority find themselves winning the chance to stand for council over people who have long track records of being good councillors and popular with voters.

Not too far from me, a local councillor with 20 years under her belt on the council was de-selected in favour of someone who more overtly backed the views of Momentum. I know this because he stood in my ward last year and his letter to voters was dominated by national issues, rather than local ones. This year, he landed a rock-solid Labour seat. An ex-Lib Dem, well known in the area, promptly stood against him as an independent. The independent won.

The lesson here? Well without talking to every voter it’s hard to know for sure. But the assumption that people voting for lots of independents this time because they’re fed up with national Government might not be the only story in town. It might just be that voters respond better when individuals campaign on local issues, rather than being part of the national tit-for-tat between parties, which local elections appear to have become annexed to.

How this all began, I don’t know. Did the media over time turn local elections into national snap polls? Was it political parties looking to be more efficient? Did local politicians fail to spot what was happening? Did local media let the side down as newspaper sales slid, which in turn often pushed the less sexy news stories – eg council – further away from the front page? Chicken, meet egg, and so on…

Where do we go from here?

Local democracy needs saving. That doesn’t mean national political meddling, but saving. Politics and the media play a part here. Here’s how it can be done:

1.National parties start respecting the local in local elections

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t have political parties in local councils, as their presence is how we ended up here. But in the absence of a better way of getting councils to function as a democracy, national political parties need to focus on helping their local candidates get elected based on local issues, not as proxies of the national mood.

A national party’s beliefs and principles can of course flow through to local politics (although given Labour’s battle with anti-semitism, I know a lot of Labour activists locally who are keen to distance themselves from such assertions) and influence the manifesto or decisions, but local elections need to be about local life.

2.A democracy fund to ensure voices are heard

It’s one thing to get on the ballot paper, it’s quite another to make an impact. Too often, whole swathes of the country go into a local election having seen nothing from any party. So all they have to go off to vote, if they go to the polls, is party knowledge.

What if standing for election meant you had to commit to connecting with voters, and were funded to send at least one election communication to every house in your constituency. The local council, through the returning officer, would be funded to deliver these leaflets, and they would all arrive together.

The rules of engagement could be that the leaflets had to be about your policies only. No political sniping, no national issues (unless overtly local too), and details of how to contact a candidate.

None of this would stop parties campaigning as well, or even sending more leaflets if they wanted too. But at least every voice would be heard, and every voter informed.

The cost would of course be millions of pounds a year across the UK, but the price of local democracy is surely greater? Just cancel HS2 if you’re struggling

3.Proper manifestos

If registered political parties are standing in local elections, in multiple seats, compel them by law to produce a manifesto which is housed on the council’s website (along with the election material mentioned above). Too often, the same party will argue polar opposites on certain issues in different wards to get the votes in.

Don’t expect these manifestos to be well read – but why should any political party be worthy of running a council if it can’t be bothered to produce a manifesto on local issues?

4.A commitment from national media

Local elections should be about local issues. A link between Labour’s performance in Chorley is no more a sign of national view on Labour, than me going to Nando’s rather than McDonald’s for tea is a damning indictment of McDonald’s – I’m just as likely to have gone because I love chicken as I am because I’m scared of restaurants which have clowns as mascots.

Local elections are a local event, which just happen to take place across the country at the same time. Just like the morning commute – everyone on the road is going somewhere, but not all to the same place, or for the same reason. Forcing it into a national context might create a story, but it lets politicians locally and nationally off the hook.

If political parties treated local elections as 400-plus local events, and the Tories took a kicking, then there would be room for lots of debate on what this says about how Tory values are resonating across the country, but it should never tell me the country is bored of Brexit.

To that end, we as the media are as much a part of the problem of low voter turnout as the national politicians who try to make local elections about them and the local politicians who can’t muster the energy to put a letter through your door.

5. Local: Be local

I would say this, being proud of have been involved in the creation of the Local Democracy Reporter scheme, but we need to make sure local journalism doesn’t just report on local councils, but constantly challenges our local politicians to be put local ahead of politics. And we need to keep pushing to find new ways of our local council stories to be read. The numbers I saw last week show that when you put your audience first, and find engaging ways to tell council stories, people will read them. That’s a good place to be if we want to play our part in saving local democracy.

The LDR scheme was set up to plug gaps in local government reporting. Increasingly, it feels like it could play a key part in saving local democracy overall. It’s showing people care about local council news — but voter turnout suggests not enough enough people care about the democracy which underpins it.

We’re proving people will read council news when it’s put in front of them (especially when it’s promoted and written to be well read). The fact people still aren’t voting indicates a crisis we all need to want to solve. 

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3 thoughts on “A manifesto for saving local democracy (a very, very long read!)

  1. Spot on David. No door knockers pre May 2, one leaflet delivered on behalf of three local Tories and not a great deal of pre election info in my two local papers (sigh). In the past at local level I’ve voted for a conservative, a labour and a lib-dem in the same election because I knew the fantastic commitment they had to solving local issues.
    No parish elections in my village May 2 because only 10 locals stood for 10 councillor posts – but our 4,500 residents are happy to take to the village Facebook group to rant and rave.
    It’s the annual parish meeting on Monday – it will be interesting to see how many villagers turn up to discuss potholes, parking on the green, and the shop that’s stood empty for a year in the village High Street. Very few will show up for face to face discussion. But they’ll moan again on social media next week. Something’s not quite right with the world.

  2. I work heading communications in local government, NHS, etc. and I’ve seen reporting of these sectors diminish. I also suspect a decline in public participation, e.g. attending meetings, consultation responses and direct contact.

    I agree with some of your ideas (councils hosting manifestos) but less so with others, e.g. I think you overstate the benefits of independent councillors.

    You raise several good issues, such as about national issues swamping local elections. As background are the concerns of local journalists – how can I report a council decision when a story about a new Greggs pie will get so many more clicks?

    The tech can help. I’m told the ability to broadcast live, automatic transcription is there or not far off. I think such should be used in every council chamber and committee room and all proceedings should be livecast and archived.

    Councils, etc. would respond: we can’t afford this. That’s true although some solutions are cheap, e.g. Facebook Live.

    What would happen with all this information? This format is key. Some councils put up audio recordings of meetings but few listen. It would be different with searchable text, presented innovatively, even just for local papers or residents blogs to be able to immediately corral all that was said about a subject of interest.

    And why would that help? I’m often not surprised by a high level of misunderstanding about local government (you run the police? hospital? the ‘gas board’!) or ‘I did not know you ran the library’. Councils run consultations but participation can be minimal and those that reply can thus have an undue weight attached to their views.

    If easy, reliable info was usable in Facebook, Twitter, etc. that could boost public interest and interaction with us, such as generating more (and maybe better based) complaints – and that’s a GOOD thing.

  3. Excellent article … LDRs are in my opinion the saviour of local democracy certainly in my area, Northamptonshire where articles, tweets and other media have brought issues to the attention of a wider audience and offered some independent scrutiny that the political elite shy away from. Action needs to follow and locally we need to create change and get back to local issues.

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