England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Cock-up or conspiracy: the impact of the General Election

Image via https://pixabay.com/

Two elections in five weeks. For those who love their democracy and happen to live in a county council area, Doncaster and North Tyneside or within one of the 6 mayoral combined authority areas, then you are spoilt for choice.

But what is the impact of the general election on the local vote? The fear is that a national poll weeks afterwards will turn the local elections into a proxy vote on party politics and Brexit. Voting for your local councillor is of course party political in most areas. But councillors, unlike MPs, cannot stand purely on party agendas. When knocking on doors people are more likely to ask why their bin hasn’t been collected than their councillor’s view on deficit reduction.

Local councillors stand accountable to their electorate uniquely on issues that the electorate can see. Crime, dirty streets, care for elderly relatives, allocation of school places, pollarding of trees, parks, controlled parking zones. Councillors cannot escape the very real effects of their actions if things go wrong. Ever so occasionally councillors might even be congratulated for their local decision-making.

The effect of the General Election on local messaging and turnout is worrying. Local elections already suffer from low levels of turnout. LGiU has campaigned to highlight the importance of voting in local elections for many years. To stand by those returning officers who hold the ultimate responsibility for delivering our national democracy, alongside local polls. To stand by those council officers who man polling stations and count the votes. To stand by councillors who are ultimately the foot soldiers of democracy.

As such we had hoped that the prime minister would take this opportunity to move the local elections to coincide with the General Election. It goes to show the mindset of those in Downing Street who planned an election without considering that a large set of local elections were already in the diary. Previous communications directors in Number 10 used to obsess about ‘the grid’. Indeed, even at the humble LGiU we employ a grid of important events for local government. The local elections are definitely in our grid.

It is regrettable that the prime minister didn’t make her decision 3 weeks earlier, or even to have passed emergency legislation to move the local elections to June as she will have to for the Manchester Gorton By-election. The last Labour government legislated to move the local elections during the 2001 foot and mouth crisis to coincide with the general election. It was not beyond Downing Street’s competence to do the same.

Cock-up or conspiracy? Sadly I think it more likely that the decision reflects a lack of interest in local elections.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *