If the last few years have taught us anything it’s that making predictions about UK politics is a hazardous business.
Looking back at my column from January last year I see that I sensibly refrained from making any. But this year, in a spirit of New Year abandon, I am going to throw caution to the wind and take a view on what 2023 might hold for local government and the politics around it.
Let’s start with an easy one: there will not be a General Election in 2023. But there will definitely be one in 2024 and that means the campaign starts now, and everything that happens in British political life this year will be anticipating this fact.
One impact of this is local elections in May will be more closely scrutinised than ever. The Conservatives did badly in this set of elections in 2019 and if they drop from this already low level, as many predict, it will be taken as further evidence of electoral decline. As we do every year, a few of us will make the case local elections should not be seen as glorified opinion polls but this argument will be harder than ever to land. Though it will still be true. There is a long time between May 2023 and May 2024 and local elections do not give you a failsafe indication of how people will vote in a national poll – just ask Theresa May.
Local government itself is not likely to become a key electoral issue but it is adjacent to many of the things that will, most notably the NHS. The Prime Minister has pledged to bring down waiting lists, but we know long-term improvement in the health service depends on solving the crisis in social care. Yet a sustainable solution to social care funding feels as far away as ever.
The same can be said of local government funding more generally. The Government will hope a slightly more generous than anticipated funding settlement will be enough to prevent the steady drip of section 114 notices from turning into a flood, but with important, well-run Conservative councils like Hampshire and Kent sounding alarm bells, 2023 could just be the year in which the Government can no longer sustain the narrative there is no structural funding problem and failing councils are simply making bad decisions.
Since his return to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove has been moving at pace to do new devolution deals and we should expect this to continue through 2023. It will be too early to see the impact of these deals this year but we should begin to learn whether the accelerated county deal approach which does not include districts is a triumph of pragmatic policy making or leaves too many loose ends to hold together.
Labour is also committed to devolution and also seems to favour a deal-based asymmetric approach so we can expect this to continue (which should offer reassurance to councils currently considering this approach that they will not have wasted their time if there is a change of government). It remains to be seen whether they adopt Gordon Brown’s recommendation to develop a clear and legally binding constitutional settlement for local government, which would be a clear difference from the current approach.
The looming election means we’re unlikely to see radical progress in social care, local government finance or devolution in 2023. But we might in 2024. If either Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer can claim a clear majority in 2024 they will have a huge amount of political capital: Mr Sunak will have completed a Lazarus-like revival in his party’s fortunes and Mr Starmer will have ended 14 years of opposition.
Either would have quite a mandate and, for a limited period, will be in a position to drive through significant reforms. So, 2023 may not be a year in which we see major change, but it will be the year in which we should prepare for it.