Local democracy is heralded by some as a way of lessening the control Westminster in general exerts over the UK. It is seen as a way of bringing greater interest and participation in politics, after all, the reasoning goes, people are more likely to get out and vote if they are voting for issues that directly concern them. Local councillors are supposed to be from the area they represent, unlike MPs who can be from any part of the country. This feeling of community is what many hope and believe will reignite interest in politics within the country. The evidence as of May 2017 seems to suggest otherwise.
A common complaint about local democracy, especially local councils, is that citizens do not really know what the local council actually does. Politics in the United Kingdom is so tied down with Westminster, or Edinburgh or Cardiff or Belfast, that many do not really have the information available for them to make an informed decision about who to vote for, for their local council.
This can be partially laid at the door of the local councils themselves. Local councils are not always very good at highlighting just what role they place in shaping local policy, they tend to just do as they have always done, ignoring tools such as the internet and social media that could help them better explain their role in setting council tax, bin collections, road works, help with parks and recreational centres.
Consequently, without properly doing one part of their job which is to ensure that people are informed about their role and job specification, local councils are simply increasing the impression that it is Westminster that does all the work, and that local councils are merely an unnecessary rung of bureaucracy.
Indeed, Margaret Rohan, a senior members’ services manager at Croydon council, said in 2012 that ‘Councils should provide more information about what they do, as a lot of their work goes unnoticed. Councils are dilatory in feeding back when they do respond to complaints: they often tend to get on and address an issue but fail to confirm what they have done to the complainant, so residents are left thinking they have been ignored’.
Local elections also have the cross to bear of being used as a testing ground for both political parties and the electorate for national issues. In the recent council elections, the conservatives made gains across the country, gaining 38% of the popular vote, which was an increase of 8% from 2016, whilst Labour’s support fell by 4%. Commentators across the political spectrum have seen this as a sign for the national election, where the Conservatives are expected to make big gains. Reflecting the feeling amongst political pundits and some of the electorate, council results show that Theresa May’s branding of ‘strong and stable’ government and her ‘Hard Brexit’ attitude is winning her a lot of points with voters.
The elections of mayors in Manchester, Teesside and the West Midlands were also used as staging grounds for the general election in a month’s time, with things like Brexit, and the NHS playing a key hand in determining which way people voted. Conservative gains in the West Midlands and Teesside reflected a trend in those areas of being pro-Brexit and wanting something different compared to a failing Labour party.
However, turn out in both elections was quite low. In the West Midlands, it stood at the appalling 26%. Just how much of a mandate the new West Midlands mayor will have is therefore up for debate. When people in the West Midlands were asked if they were going to be voting, many did not even know there was an election happening, whilst others said they would be spoiling their ballot, as they did not see the point in having another level of bureaucracy.
Whilst this highlights the risks of holding local elections with the lack of information out there for people to use to get informed, it also highlights that on some level the people are engaged. A desperate man might argue that it is better for people to get out and vote, even if they are not voting for the issues that are directly at play in the local elections, than to not vote at all. And whilst the turnout for the local elections in 2017 varied between 26 and 33%, there were many who said they would have voted had they actually known more about what the local councils did and what their councillors stood for. So, that can be taken as an encouraging sign.
Secondly, from this writer’s experience working in Birmingham City Council, the local councillors are fully aware of the issues that affect their communities, and they come up with reasonable and proper solutions for these issues, something that is often lacking from Westminster. Combined with their desire to work in coalitions to handle the big issues, such as new road developments, and funding for centres that prevent youth crime, they are working together to try and enact settlements that benefit the entire community, not giving into the partisan politicking that can often happen in Westminster.
There are problems with local democracy. It can be a burden – another level of bureaucracy that might not be needed in times when the public is ill informed – but, in the present political climate, with Westminster looking to make cuts as they prepare for Brexit, local councils are increasingly needed. Only locally chosen politicians can truly know the issues that affect their localities.
With a greater push on the information front, there is nothing stopping the local electorate becoming more informed about the role of local politicians, and ensuring proper engagement.