This blog is part of LGIU’s LE2021 support and coverage.
According to most national media, next week’s elections in England are significant only because they are a super opinion poll to beat all others, with real votes cast by real people (although I would largely exempt the BBC from this as they do report on local elections).
It was ever thus. No point in moaning about it really. And, of course, it isn’t actually false – the 6 May elections will reflect the national political mood – even if a week is a long time in politics and there will be speculation about, for example, whether issues such as the décor in Number 10 have affected the votes.
Researching for a briefing over the last few weeks I did try and get the perspective of the national parties about the local elections from the horse’s mouth. That didn’t work. None of the main political parties contesting them had anything at all about them on their homepage. I phoned three of their headquarters. I spoke to lots of people. None of them seemed to even know local elections were happening. They didn’t come back when they said they would. So, ok, they don’t have national manifestos for these elections – I didn’t actually expect them to. After all these are local (and regional). But what I did expect, clearly naively, would be some idea of the relevant strategic issues that are dominating some of the campaigns locally: why don’t political parties seem to have any strategy beyond a few promises – and actually some don’t even have those. They make commitments that are outside the remit of local government or claim for themselves credit for something that is not really in their gift.
These elections are very much about the aftermath of Covid and the transition and recovery from it. How do the national parties see the role of combined authorities and mayors in responding to the massive challenges their regions face? How can councils meet the challenge of different shopping and work habits? Do the parties have a vision for more devolution and greater powers for councils? And what about the unfinished business – almost unstarted – of delivering an effective local government finance system and a sustainable reformed system for adult social care – not to mention how the immediate financial gaps could be filled.
We can’t just blame the media then for assuming these elections are important mainly for gauging the state of the parties. After all, the parties don’t help themselves. Keir Starmer launched Labour’s campaign by focusing on nurses’ pay. Boris Johnson was keen to highlight the vaccine rollout.
So we don’t have national manifestos for these elections and that is fine – after all it is up to local partiers to put forward their plans for their own areas – but why can’t national party leaders tell us their vision for devolution, for strengthening local and regional government, for more powers, for fixing finance and social care? Because they don’t have any perhaps?
But perhaps the parties and the media haven’t got it totally wrong – and there is more logic in the way the elections are being viewed this year. Locally, regionally and nationally the prime issue is Covid-19, what it has meant for communities and places and how recovery should happen. Issues such as levelling up have been prominent in many of the mayoral campaigns and in local elections in particular areas – how can national strategies be implemented locally, is levelling up just a sound bite, is the funding going to the right places, and how can regional and local government make the difference in promoting sustainable growth and creating jobs?
Although these themes are dominant, the local dimension is also clear – what is important in Tees Valley is not necessarily the prime focus in Cambridge and Peterborough. In the West of England all the candidates are saying they would represent a louder voice for a region that often gets ignored by Westminster.
And there is also the political dimension – Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire highlights what a Labour mayor would implement around green jobs at the core of local economic recovery, Matthew Robinson, the Conservative candidate, targets Opportunity Areas and working with central government.
The last year has seen local government working closely with their communities in the response to the pandemic, not just managing a hugely difficult situation daily, but developing innovative solutions to challenges that would have been unthinkable before Covid. This was on top of having to deal with the failings of the centralised track and trace system, the immense pressures on social care, and the reluctance centrally to share data.
There will be many new councillors elected in England next week, in districts, counties, unitaries and cities, as well as new metro mayors and directly elected mayors. Simon Edwards in today’s Red Box from The Times is right to remind us that the focus on national politics and on personalities should not detract from the impact next week’s elections have on the most important day-to-day services people rely on – it is local government that connects with people’s lives in a myriad of ways.
Local government made its voice heard in the last year on behalf of its residents and businesses. The Centre for Cities says that this has already changed how English politics works and it has altered the balance of power between Westminster and the rest of England. It’s too early to say whether this movement will gain momentum – the government seems to have cooled on devolution recently and the Treasury showed in the Budget that it sees itself as the dominant driver of ‘levelling up’.
The elections are primarily about how crucial services are managed and delivered, but also about how places are shaped and how they will be developing and recovering from the pandemic. We need a new relationship between local and central government to ensure that the many new councillors, and those already in place, are able to deliver on the key commitments made in the election campaigns. It is local government that will lead on transition and recovery at the local and regional level. All it needs is the tools to do so.
Super Thursday 6 May: issues, campaigns and comment (member briefing)