England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Anthony Zacharzewski on the missing 10%


As part of our live coverage, we’re collecting thoughts from a panel of a local gov experts. We hear from Anthony Zacharzewski, Chief Executive of demsoc, who explains why modern political journalism’s focus on politics, rather than policy, is a disservice to local services and local politicians. Local councils need to communicate with citizens at a local level – and find the missing 10%.

It has been a very strange local election campaign. Local government is what wonks like me call a “secondary election” – one that isn’t a general election. Normally that relegates them to the status of “big opinion polls” on national governments, but the rise of UKIP and the European debate seems to have pushed local council elections into third place in the priority listings for the media.

The BBC election night show certainly demonstrated how little they saw the “local” in local elections. MP after MP was rolled out, plans for General Elections critiqued, and the only candidate interviewed was the UKIP candidate who was the face of the Croydon carnival fiasco (which clearly mattered because it was on the national news). Other than that, in four hours of BBC coverage, not a single local council leader or candidate was seen, except milling around in the background.

This does local services and local politicians a massive disservice. Once the UKIP caravan has moved on, and the general election is the focus of the political world, the councillors elected tonight will be helping constituents, shaping services, and leading their councils. They deserve a little bit more of the limelight, and the Westminster bubble a lot less.

The problem is, modern political journalism is so much more about politics than policy that there is no prospect of local services coming to the fore. Maybe I will be proved wrong tomorrow, I hope so, but no-one watching the BBC would have the faintest idea that there might be a difference between Oldham and Barnet in the way in which they deliver services, or that the elections in Hull and Tandridge might have different local factors in play.

It’s time for local councils to get messages out a new ways, and to make sure that the policy debates at local level are being communicated to citizens. It’s pretty clear that the mainstream media won’t do it for them.

The disillusion with politics that has been shown in the election results tonight is a risk to every politician, but particularly at local level. More than 50% of people believe that they can influence things at local level by taking part in community action, but fewer than 40% were voting in most areas. Where is the missing 10%? Who are the people who think they can influence their area by community action, but not by choosing their councils? Those “close disengaged” are the ones that we need to be focusing our attention on over the next few years.