This article is part of the LGIU’s one-stop-shop of local elections resources, which include information, support, analysis and commentary.
Modern local government in the UK developed and took on a concrete form during the 19th and 20th centuries, alongside the development of British democratic institutions like the expansion of the franchise. It has been a crucial hub for democratic organising from the Chartists onward.
As we look ahead to this year’s local elections, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of strong democracy at the local level for the health of democracy in general.
There are several recent studies that suggest people are becoming more and more disillusioned with democracy around the world. In the United States and Europe there is even an alarming trend, among young people in particular, to believe that authoritarian rule would be preferable.
A recent survey from the think tank Onward found that 61% of 18-34s agree that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections would be a good way of governing this country”. 46% agree that “having the army rule would be a good way of governing this country”, compared to 29% and 13% for those over-55s respectively. Twenty six percent of 18-34s think democracy is a bad way of governing this country and 75% think having experts, not the government, make decisions, would be better. We covered that report in a briefing for LGIU members here.
At the same time many people consistently report having a higher level of trust in their locally elected leaders than those in parliament. Now, this might seem like good news for local government and for those championing more devolved decision making. But to be more trusted than MPs is not a particularly high bar and it definitely feels like we could be aiming higher. We also know that turnout in local elections is low, lower even than in general elections.
The Local Democracy Research Centre at the LGIU will be conducting original research projects over the coming months, firstly to dig into public attitudes around local democracy a little more and, secondly, to look at the process around local elections as the requirement for compulsory voter ID is introduced.
These twin projects will help to give us a better sense of the strengths of the democratic process and begin to plot a path towards a stronger democratic culture starting from the ground up. Our research will look at how the changes are managed by already stretched elections teams, as well as assessing the impact on inclusion and participation, with lessons for the rollout of the regulations elsewhere.
Local democracy is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, because many of the issues that are of most concern to people, from social care and transport to public space and housing, are managed locally. There is a recognition that if these things were decided locally they might be delivered more effectively or efficiently.
For example, IPPR found that more than 50% of people in the North think that ‘in general, more decisions should be made by devolved and local governments’ because these decisions would be made closer to those who have to live with them. So there is a practical argument to be made for local democracy.
But, secondly, the local level is also an entry point into civic life for many people. It is a point of contact where they are more likely to participate in local institutions and groups, to volunteer, they might attend school or have kids that do, or they’ll use local amenities and services. A small number will even participate in local politics, join local political parties and participate directly in the democratic process.
If we want a stronger democracy it makes sense to begin with democracy at the local level, to build on the networks and connections of civic life that matter to people. Local government is what brings together the strands, connects the threads and enables the things that we want to happen. It brings together growth and services and gives people a stake in their places.
And it can do that because it is more than a deliverer of services. It is a democratic institution.
LGIU’s full elections resources – updated every week
Every year LGIU puts the spotlight on local elections, with information, commentary and analysis for our members and wider local government.
Because for us, these elections are the most important elections – the part of our democracy that is embedded in the places where we live and work. And supporting the people who make local elections happen, who uphold our local democracy, is at the heart of what the LGIU is about.