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

The basic laws of political physics

Image by manfredrichter from Pixabay

One of the features of contemporary politics is the speed with which things move, writes Jonathan Carr West. In the last few weeks we have seen local elections in which the Conservatives lost over 1,000 seats; European elections in which the largest vote share was won by a party that barely existed when that column came out, and the Prime Minister announcing her resignation, triggering a Conservative leadership race. So, a quiet month…

Amidst all the drama and uncertainty it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. What is signal and what is noise? When we think about local government’s place in all this, is it complete chaos or do there remain some basic laws of political physics that can guide us?

I find it helpful to think in terms of pressure, vacuum and atmosphere.

The pressure that local government is under is familiar. A decade of finding cuts has left councils stretched to breaking point. This is increasingly recognised: over the last couple of weeks we have seen headlines about care providers going under and speculation in the press about which councils are running their reserves dangerously low. It is not just about money, though.

Long-term changes to our society, demography and economy are placing pressure on local government services that would eventually reach crisis point however much money we spend. So, we need to think radically about how we deliver public services.

Faced with these pressures, local government finds itself within a policy vacuum. No social care Green Paper two years after it was promised. No clarity on the funding formula or business rate retention less than a year before these are due to kick in. And it is only going to get worse.

With a contest to find the next Prime Minister and another looming Brexit deadline in October, not to mention the very real possibilities of a second referendum and/or a General Election, it would be unwise to expect local government to receive any sustained attention any time soon, no matter how close to failure it inches.

All this takes place within a political atmosphere that is increasingly divided and toxic. Local and European elections revealed an electorate that is polarising around no-deal or no-Brexit and which seems increasingly unwilling to compromise.

And Brexit is not an isolated issue. The dissatisfactions that drive it remain unaddressed and provide fertile ground for populist politics.

This not just a British phenomenon: Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen also had very good Euro elections. This is both a symptom and a cause of declining trust in institutions. And, populist politicians are adept at exploiting this.

It was notable that during the election campaign, the Brexit Party turned its fire on MPs, the House of Lords, the BBC and the civil service. Local government is an institution and it will have to learn how to navigate these public attitudes if it is to generate the trust-based, collaborative relationships with communities it will need in the future.

So, pressure, vacuum and atmosphere – taken together things look pretty grim. The questions many of us have been asking for years still feel right. How do we move to a more decentralised political settlement? How do we forge a new relationship between citizens and the (local) state? But we should also acknowledge that despite asking these questions for decades we have made limited progress.

Where should we focus our attention? For me, the priority is atmosphere. Potentially, the pressure provides a burning platform and the vacuum an opportunity for action, but if the atmosphere remains toxic we won’t be able to move forward at all.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGiU. This article first appeared in The MJ, 5th June.