England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

No alarms, no surprises

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A week on from Election Day, the world does not look at all as predicted. For months we have been told that Labour and the Conservatives were neck-and-neck in the polls and the last weeks of the election campaign were dominated by anticipation of a hung Parliament.

National newspapers ran hysterical headlines warning of the ‘chaos’ and ‘paralysis’ that would attend weeks of coalition negotiations.

At the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), we were never worried about this paralysis because we know that most of the things that really matter to people – how our elderly relatives will be cared for, will our children get a decent education, will our neighbourhoods be safe and clean – all these things are delivered by local government and all of them will keep happening whatever power games go on in the Palace of Westminster.

All of which makes it somewhat of an irony that all the focus has been so exclusively on the General Election; admittedly a dramatic one, with local elections in 279 councils relegated to the background even though they are more significant in shaping the services that matter most to people in their everyday lives.

And that irony is even deeper, because the General Election result will have been a lot less surprising to anyone who has been following local government elections over the last couple of years.

We have consistently seen the Conservative vote hold up better than predicted and Labour not losing much, but failing to gain any ground outside London and the Northern Mets.

Looking at how people have actually voted in local elections, rather than how they tell pollsters they are going to vote, would have given us a much more accurate sense of what to expect.

There is an under-reported symbiosis between local and national politics: national success is inevitably built on local foundations and increasingly it is at a local level where innovative policy is formed.

That’s why, at LGiU, we provide live coverage and analysis of the local elections as they happen, live blogging all the results over 48 hours.

What we see is the local and national results reinforce each other.

The Conservatives have tightened their grip on local government – not so much a surge as a squeeze with more than 25 councils that were previously under no overall control (NOC) moving to Conservative majorities. Places like High Peak, Scarborough and Worcester – all very much ‘middle England’ seats.

They also took a handful of councils such as Amber Valley directly from Labour control.

As with the national results, it is tempting to see this as a rejection of coalition politics. In most of the NOC councils that are now Conservative controlled there were formal or informal coalitions, with the Conservatives as the largest party in many cases. We have heard a lot about the transition to multi-party politics. That may well be an underlying trend but you have to say that these election results do not show much evidence of it.

Labour has not lost a great deal but it has made virtually no gains either. Late wins in Cheshire West & Chester and Brighton will come as little consolation. By and large the party is now pinned back into its urban strongholds in London and the North.

For the Liberal Democrats it is all pain. The party now controls even fewer councils than it has MPs. Given what a bad General Election it had, the party will have been hugely relieved to hang on in places like Eastleigh and South Lakeland.

UKIP looked like it was having a very disappointing night with nothing like the seat gains we have seen in recent years, but then late in the day it took control of Thanet Council.

In other parts of the country UKIP has not seemed very engaged with the local government agenda, and there are indications of the party losing seats after a single term. Can it now turn itself from a party of protest into a party of local government? That remains to be seen.

Although there were few surprises, these local results will have a huge impact on UK politics over the next five years.

After a crushing General Election defeat, Labour will enter a period of soul-searching at national level but, if it is to be successful, that debate about purpose and policy must be shaped by the way in which the party operates in the parts of the country that it actually runs.

Looking at the map we see the space between and outside its two clusters of power in the northern cities and in London is almost entirely blue.

Labour’s task now is to bridge that gap: geographically, politically and emotionally. If it is to do so, it must look to the hugely important and innovative work that many of its councils are already doing to redefine social democracy in an era of austerity.

For the Liberal Democrats it is more a matter of survival. Decimated in Parliament, its future as a party will depend in large measure on rebuilding at a local level, but losing more than 300 councillors, a third of its total, will make that task much more challenging.

None of the party’s parliamentary seats overlap with the councils the Lib Dems control; will that prove a weakness or an opportunity?

It is worth noting that, following the election, the party’s membership numbers have actually soared. A similar thing happened for the SNP after the Scottish Independence Referendum, raising the question of whether losing elections may be good for the health of your party in other ways.

The Conservatives will be delighted to achieve their party’s first majority government since 1992, but it will still find that its time in office is shaped by local politics. The SNP’s overwhelming success in Scotland means that further devolution will have to be part of the political landscape.

Councils in England will want their share of that and the Government will come under increasing pressure, especially from the large Conservative counties, to open up their devolution offer which has been seen as too metropolitan, too Northern and too targeted at Labour councils.

In the run-up to the election, chancellor George Osborne was clear that he sees devolution as a key unfinished project for his second term, but delivering that may depend upon a much more open, deal based model in which local areas put forward their own models for the devolution they need.

That, in turn, puts an onus on local authorities to come up with realistic, well grounded plans for devolution and to put in place the local partnerships they need to deliver it.

These plans must be as much about what they can deliver better as about the extra powers they need.

We face some vital challenges over the next few years: rebuilding local economies, creating sustainable public services, defining our identity as a nation in Europe and the world.

All these challenges must be met from the bottom up. All of them require local and national government to work together.

At LGiU we hear a clear message from our members about what local government wants and needs: fiscal devolution, more power in the hands of councils and communities, and respect (and space) from central government.

The new government is rhetorically committed to these things. Can it put its money where its mouth is?

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

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