England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Getting to grips at local level

Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay

Election day is finally here. After a campaign that seems to have dragged on for aeons, it’s little black cross time at last.
Like all General Election campaigns, this one has veered between soap opera and the theatre of the absurd: we have had ‘milifans’ and Milibrand, the Grants Schapps Wikipedia saga, and Nick Clegg’s spiky reception at a hedgehog sanctuary.

And of course there are serious issues at play in the closest election for a generation: the economy, Britain’s place in Europe and the state of the Union itself will all be shaped by the way people vote today.

But of course, as MJ readers will be more aware than most, the General Election is not the only vote happening today. There are also local elections in the best part of 300 councils across the country including 161 councils that have all of their seats up for grabs.

That’s thousands of people standing to represent their community as local councillors.

Now we know that national politics dominates the media and that national elections get a higher turnout than local ones. So there is little doubt which elections will get the most attention, but there is an interesting debate to be had about which matter more.

People cite the NHS and immigration as the two biggest issues facing the country consistently in polls. Both of these are, at least on the surface, issues for national government, but behind these headline national issues sit a great many concerns that are basically local such as access to public services, housing, jobs, care of the elderly, local health strategies.

Arguably, most of the things that really matter to people in their everyday lives are the province of local government. Will our elderly relatives be properly cared for? Will our children have jobs and the skills to do them? Will they have homes to live in? Will our high streets prosper and will our neighbourhoods be clean and safe? Our responses to all these challenges are driven in the first instance by the thousands of councillors who will stand for election in May and not by the few hundred members of Parliament.

So why don’t we hear more about ‘the other election’? Partly, of course, because of that soap opera quality which, while not absent at local level is certainly magnified nationally and partly because the national media not unreasonably concentrates on the election that affects all their readers or viewers and in which they can all vote. Equally, the complexity of local politics tends to resist the sort of grand narratives that power reporting of the national vote.

Yet this leaves a gap. And that is not good for democracy. At the Local Government Information Unit we will be providing full coverage and analysis of the local elections results, working with over 150 count correspondents based throughout the country. Our live interactive map will provide the results as they come in throughout 8 and 9 May and a paper version will be published with The MJ shortly afterwards. We expect to have the final results by close of play on Saturday.

Of course it remains to be seen whether we will have a national government by then. Depending on how things shape up tonight we could see a fairly protracted period of negotiation as the different contenders struggle to put together the 323 votes they need to command a Commons majority. Even once a government is formed it may not find itself in a position of strength.

This is generally seen as a bad thing. Chaos will follow unless we have strong government we are told. ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, as Yeats had it.

We, like many readers of this magazine, are more sanguine about it. Children will still be schooled, older people will still be looked after, bins will still be collected and traffic will still flow. Why? Because all these things and more: the web and weft of daily life are delivered by local government and local government will keep Britain moving.

The fact that Labour and the Conservatives are still neck and neck going into polling day suggests either that the pollsters are missing a trick, or that neither party has really found a way of understanding what people want and speaking effectively to it.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Getting to grips with what really matters to people requires a depth of engagement and an attention to detail that can only be achieved at a local level and this is ultimately why what happens in local government will be more important than the sound and fury of the Westminster variety show, however much that may capture our attention over the next few hours and days.

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

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