Dr Jonathan Carr-West argues the importance of the EU referendum cannot be allowed to overshadow critical local elections, which could see dramatic change across British councils.
It is seven weeks until the big vote. No, not that one, the other one. Yes, it’s local election time again and at Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) we’re gearing up for our usual in-depth coverage and analysis. We are already recruiting a network of count correspondents through the hashtag #outforthecount.
We’re undeterred by the fact political coverage is currently almost exclusively focused on the EU referendum. Clearly that’s an issue of generational strategic importance, but it also illustrates just why local elections matter so much.
There are two interesting but slightly depressing features of the argument on both sides of the referendum debate. The first is that it is incredibly inward-looking. It is all about how we want Britain to be, not how we want Europe to be. The second is it tends to consider questions about sovereignty and political agency purely at the level of the nation state.
There is more to democracy than national elections and before we get to the referendum ballot people across the country will be going to the polls to choose the local councillors who will represent them and make vital decisions about the communities they live in and the public services they use.
In reality, these local elections will be both vital and fascinating. For one thing they will tell us a lot about where we are in the political cycle.
Accurate information is surprisingly hard to come by. With less than two months to the poll neither the Electoral Commission nor the Local Government Association have published definitive lists of where elections are taking place.
We have put together our own list which you can find on our website.
On the face of things, Labour has more to lose than the Conservatives, with elections taking place in 58 Labour-controlled councils compared with 40 Conservative- controlled authorities. Several of those look vulnerable: Labour has 12 councils out in thirds in which a swing of one to four seats would see it lose control.
Bradford, Crawley, Redditch, Rossendale and Southampton need a swing of just two seats for Labour to lose overall control. As these councils are also only out by thirds, Labour would remain the largest party – but without a majority.
It has been reported that Labour strategists are already briefing the party could lose up to 200 council seats. Some expectation management is at play here. It is likely to be a judgement call on how bad is really bad?
The Conservatives look less insecure with few councils outside the South East up for grabs. Of course they have their own problems with the national leadership falling out with their local government base over the funding settlement, devolution and Europe, but these issues do not look likely to spill out into the election results.
However, it’s a mistake to see local elections simply as a bellwether for national politics. We will also see what decisions people are making about local issues, how they are thinking about local aspirations and priorities at a time when the fundamentals of local government are changing very fast.
These elections will be the first to start to define the post-devolution political landscape, selecting in many cases the councillors and councils who will have to deliver on any new settlements.
We have often made the case that if the big questions of the 21st century are global – climate change, resource pressure, demographic change and the world economy – they are also essentially local. Who will look after my elderly relatives? Will our children have homes, jobs and skills? Will our neighbourhoods be safe and sustainable?
That is why the European debate matters. But the local elections matter for exactly the same reason because they shape the ways we will respond to the key challenges we face in the world.
The missing piece in all this is the nation state, but in a world where the big questions are global and local, it is the nation that looks increasingly unfit for purpose.
The EU referendum and the local elections taken together with the background of devolution offer us a unique opportunity to think all this through, deciding on the form and levels of governance that suits our current needs.
But if we continue to frame that debate solely in terms of national sovereignty we will squander the opportunity and resemble nothing more than the two proverbial bald men fighting over their comb.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.