10 April 2024

LocalGov Elections: Vote reformation

LocalGov Elections: Vote reformation image
Image: Sven Hansche / Shutterstock.com.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis draws inspiration from a popular podcast on the Reformation to ponder the perennial question of just how local are our politics ahead of the elections in May.

The trite received wisdom that ‘all politics is local’ is a self-evident truth that in England is observed almost wholly in the breech position. For what passes for the ‘local’ in our local elections perennially fights against the Death Star like tractor-beam pull of our political media elite’s obsessive determination to only consider them through the prism of potential parliamentary outcomes.

Witness this yourself over the coming weeks either side of the looming May local polls, in the unerring tendency of our revered psephological pundits to extrapolate from the parochial to that which truly matters. Namely, how the multitude of often complex and mighty local contests for control and governance over mayoral and local authorities get reduced to a tinned snapshot of polling intentions, and how this might translate at the next general election.

Typically, the problem and frustration of local election coverage boils down to the disjunct between old saw that ‘all politics is local’, and the immediate indecent media rush to scale up of what this means for parliamentary constituencies. In this haste, we lose all sense of the local which feeds the national.

Given that we are half a year or less away from the balloon going up on this parliament, there is more justification in looking at the results this way. And arguably, the dramatic demise of the local press at the hands of clickbait websites and bottom-feeding tech giants has rolled the pitch irreversibly in favour of the national narrative.

As Lord Hague opined recently in his column for The Times, out of 380 local authority areas 209 had a daily local paper in 2007, a figure that fell to 142 by 2019 and is still lower now, with the ranks of local hacks depleted from 13,000 to fewer than 4,000 over this time.

When the Birmingham Post’s circulation is less than a thousand copies for what is England’s second city, is this sufficient evidence that there is no audience at all for local politics? And despite protestations to the contrary, can it not be said this apathy mirrors widespread public indifference for local democratic accountability and scrutiny, and the sense that local services are something ‘done to’ residents and communities rather than for or with them?

Well, if we can hold more than one thought in our minds at once, this may well be so, but it also very much remains the case that these elections are vital for shaping the places where we live. All politics is local remains true in that control of anything at the level of place – from a mayoral combined authority to unitary, district or parish – will allow for local political priorities to mould the public realm, local economy and neighbourhood services.

While central government may deride local politicians – as Grant Shapps as housing minister memorably did in insulting fashion – as glorified Scout group leaders undeserving of allowances and pensions or much respect, local choices will determine local outcomes. The very shape of place through planning decisions affecting housing and high street regeneration is determined at the ballot box.

Civil servants and ministers alike will take keen note of local voting patterns in weighing up devolution deals and in the relationships with council chiefs which they must account for. Sometimes they can set their own weather, as when Ben – now Lord – Houchen brought a degree and style of municipal intervention to the Tees Valley Combined Authority to rival that of Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham or Lord Heseltine’s 1980s adventures in urban regeneration.

Indeed, the increasing importance of the combined authority mayoral model and the style of charismatic leadership will be one to note as the 10 MCAs and London Mayor seek re-election this May. Whether Houchen in Tees Valley or Andy Street in the West Midlands can continue as the poster boys of a Conservative model of devolution will be the bellwether for many observers. It will be intriguing to see if polling undertaken by Centre for Cities showing metro mayors as more recognizable than MPs or local authority leaders and with greater emphasis on individual leaders than party affiliation bears fruit in a few weeks’ time.

Looking ahead and beyond May, how this agenda plays out in the near future of a Starmer government remains to be seen. The binary options are whether Labour’s policy review and adherence with Gordon Brown’s ‘New Britain’ constitutional framework means we pursue in England a uniform mayoral model at the expense of bespoke deal-by-deal arrangements which only contribute to the mind-bendingly complex asymmetry of devolution on the national stage.

Listeners to the ‘Rest is History’ podcast on the legacy of Martin Luther will have been mentally rewriting their A level history essays over whether the English reformation was top-down imposition championed by a tyrannical Henry VIII or bottom up, locally led change from below. To my understanding, top down has been the way to go since Brexit 1.0 and the Henrician break with Rome. So, in this sense, the local elections will have to assume a relative level of importance and one justly appropriate to place, while the national polls may well herald another seismic turn of the screw for top-down change on how we do things locally.

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