Hello and goodbye, by Philip Johnston

8 May 08
The May 1 election results gave Labour a bloody nose and shook up the political landscape. It also reflected voters' feeling that local authorities have precious little power.

09 May 2008

The May 1 election results gave Labour a bloody nose and shook up the political landscape. It also reflected voters' feeling that local authorities have precious little power. Philip Johnston reports

Local elections are not really local any more, if they ever were. This year's round of contests in England and Wales seemed, more than in most years, to be dominated by national issues. Certainly, the interpretation of their outcome had far more to do with their impact on Westminster politics than on municipal achievement. The fact that Labour lost control of Reading had nothing, apparently, to do with how well or badly the council was run, but was intended to teach Gordon Brown a lesson.

It might well be that many people voted in order to send a signal to the politicians in London, but is it true of most? We know that low taxes pay electoral dividends for Conservative councils such as Wandsworth and Westminster, even when the Tories are doing badly nationally, so it is possible to buck what looks like a political trend.

But it seems pretty clear from the scale of the May Day rout for Labour that this was more than a normal run-of-the-mill local election setback, not least because the party lost so heavily in its heartlands. After all, this was the four-yearly cycle of elections that should have been good for Labour, since they take place largely in the big cities, the metropolitan boroughs and Wales, all Labour heartlands. If the contests had been in the shire counties or districts, you could imagine the Labour vote disappearing altogether.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this year's contests? First, the turnout. Many councils worked hard to increase voter participation yet the final figures showed that at about 35% it was not greater than in any other year. In some parts of Liverpool the turnout was below 10%. In the years between 1979 and 1996, average turnout in local elections in England and Wales topped 40%, and in the postwar years it was 50%. The low point was in 1998, when it dropped to 28%.

It is noticeable, however, that turnout in local elections is gradually rising again. Participation is also higher when local contests are held on the same day as the general election, although turnout in the latter is also at an all-time low. This lack of engagement seems to suggest a general apathy with the formal political process; but it might be ameliorated by more innovative methods of voting.

Of course, the one place where turnout was highest, averaging 45% and rising to 70% in some areas, was London. The mayoral election in the capital demonstrated the galvanising power of personality politics. True, it got more than a modicum of publicity, which was due more to the size of the job and the fame of the personalities seeking to fill it. There was also a huge amount at stake for the parties supporting the winner and loser. But perhaps there is a message here. If we want to make local politics interesting again and, in the modern jargon, to engage people more, a bit of old-fashioned personality-based stump electioneering clearly works wonders.

Writing in this month's Prospect magazine, Michael Kenny, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, and Guy Lodge, head of the democracy team at the Institute for Public Policy Research, make a plea for more mayoral contests of the sort that Tony Blair once promised but that have materialised only sporadically.

'The London mayoral election has got a lot of people in the capital talking about politics again,' they say. 'There is more at stake here than political drama... Beyond London, it is clear that there is something about elected mayors which generates political energy and a sense of connection. As a result of their direct election, mayors are much better known than council leaders, and are in a position to promote greater political accountability.'

It seems odd that at a time when there appears to be greater interest in local politics, fewer people take part in elections. When asked, voters say they do not believe elections make much difference. The feeling that councils are really not in control of their own destinies might explain why voters consider local elections an opportunity to punch the government on the nose. Party canvassers consistently reported that issues such as the 10p tax abolition were raised on the doorstep, although the local councillor could not do anything about that.

So the second lesson from the May Day Massacre has to do with the need for greater local decision-making and for people to feel that their votes really count. How to bring this about has been debated ad nauseam without anything obviously changing. How do you encourage people to believe that participating in local democracy is an efficient, effective way of influencing what happens to them, their neighbours and their community when they know most of those decisions are being taken not in the town hall, but in Whitehall?

Sir Simon Milton, chair of the Local Government Association, says: 'The best way to boost turnout at local elections would be to give councils greater powers genuinely to improve people's lives. More people would vote at council elections if local authorities had power to raise and retain more money locally.'

Getting to grips with this truism was meant to be the task of the Lyons Inquiry, which promised much in expectations but little in the delivery. Its main recommendations involved fairly minor reforms to the council tax, which are the last thing on the minds of ministers as they try to hold back the tide of voter anger over other tax rises and higher living costs. Little since Lyons has furthered the objective of giving local government more responsibility and freeing it from obsessively detailed central government control.

Recent local government legislation promised deregulation and more powers, but it hardly amounted to the promised devolution to English councils to match the freedom given to Scotland and Wales. Even the idea of a network of powerful city mayors has stalled because the government would prefer to deal with strengthened executive Cabinets, which of themselves tend to alienate voters even more than in the days when all decisions were taken in public by council committees.

After many years encouraging the idea, there are still only 13 elected mayors in England, though they can now serve for four years without seeking re-election, rather than just 12 months as before. So far, of the 35 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities, 23 have been rejected by the voters.

The elections on May 1 have given the Conservatives a stronger grip on local governance than they had previously, with more councillors now than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. The Tories have, after many years of trying, moved clearly into second place in the metropolitan authorities from a neck-and-neck competition with the LibDems. While the LibDems trod water, the Tories added one-third to their total in the metropolitan authorities.

Yet the decisions about their future are being taken by a Labour government at Westminster increasingly out of tune with the voters in England and with less support in England than the other parties. There is more broad-based support, though, for the sub-national economic development and regeneration reforms, which propose a much stronger role for councils in economic development and a new function for regional development agencies in regional planning.

This is not meant to be another layer of governance, more a template for better collaboration. But will yet another apparent structure, to go with all the others – the shires, the districts, the unitaries – make people more or less involved in the process? Again, the lesson from London is that when people think a vote will make a difference, they become interested in the local politics. This was not just about Ken vs Boris, it was also about alternative visions of what the city could and should be like.

It is no coincidence that the heyday of the English cities was when they were great civic and cultural institutions with 'city fathers', such as Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, who had the power and motivation (the two go together) to get things done. Nowadays, when local government leaders complain that they have to go through so many bureaucratic hoops even to get a link road constructed, is it any surprise that the populace has lost faith in the idea of local governance?

If we look across the Channel, local politics are far more vibrant than here. For example, Lille, one of France's 14 communautés urbaines, groups 85 local bodies, ranging from large industrial towns to small villages, into a conurbation that exercises delegated powers over waste, water, public transport, roads, economic development and the environment.

German, Spanish and Italian cities do the same. Frankfurt, for instance, exercises autonomy over a wide hinterland, able to plan its growth and install new infrastructure without reference to another body. But if a large town in England wanted to join forces with the county, two district councils and five unitary neighbours to regenerate the area, the bodies would have to negotiate their way through eight local development frameworks, seven local transport plans, a regional economic strategy, and regional transport and housing plans. Then they would have to deal with national targets set by the Highways Agency, Network Rail, the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council.

The LGA, which has been pressing for reform in this area, hopes the sub-regional concept will allow councils that already collaborate across a wide range of functions much more freedom to get on with it.

LGA chief executive Paul Coen would much rather the media had focused more on local issues than they did during the campaign and in its aftermath. 'Watching the coverage on TV and listening to it on the radio, you would be forgiven for not knowing that these were local elections at all,' he says. 'Many of the issues debated – police, post offices, the 10p income tax – were either national to start with or presented in such a way as to lose all sense of local significance. And, in the time I spent following the results, I saw not one local politician interviewed. Surely this can't be right.'

Right or not, it is what happened, and it is what people wanted to happen. In truth, the most important lesson from this year's local elections is that the Labour Party is heading for almost certain defeat at the next general election, which will not be held until the spring of 2010. More pertinently, the elections pointed strongly to a possible Conservative victory, so a close scrutiny of the party's local government policies is in order once they have been developed.

Until May 1, the smart money was on a hung Parliament, which even now is probably still favourite given the electoral mountain that the Tories have to climb and their continued lack of representation in Scotland, parts of the North and in Wales.

But it is no longer fanciful to imagine that David Cameron will be in 10 Downing Street two years from now; less so, in fact, than the laughable proposition just a few months ago that Boris Johnson would be mayor of London.

Philip Johnston is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph


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