The farce of Local Democracy

The Yorker
May 19th, 2012

Local government—two words that are enough to send most people, even if they’re passionate about politics, to sleep. The council chamber and its inhabitants are far from glamorous. And yet, local government in this country is of intense importance; the decisions they make have a greater impact on an average citizen’s day to day relationship with the ‘state’, than those of national government.

Voter turnout at recent council elections was 32%, a figure that, outside the glitteringly tedious world of student politics, is, and should be, considered far from impressive. Partly this is a consequence of the ‘voter fatigue’ that has been written about so extensively. However, other factors are at play—turnout at the last general election was 65%; clearly, many millions of people are prepared to vote for a national government, but not a local one.

Furthermore, out of those 32% very few, outside London, were voting on local issues. Instead, there is a tendency to see the seemingly never-ending tide of local government elections as glorified national opinion polls, something that is repeatedly reinforced by the media circus. However, one should be wary about placing too much blame at the feet of the Andrew Neil chattering classes; after all, they are merely reporting the pre-existing reality. It seems, for example, unlikely that all those people who stopped supporting the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties did so because of something their local councillors had done or planned to do.

The majority of people in this country live in blissful-ignorance as to how their council is run, elected, what it does, and who is on it. A yougov poll conducted last year illustrates this point perfectly. It found that in the East Midlands, for example, 79% of people were unable to name a single local representative. Anecdotally, I don’t know the names of any local councillors, either in York or where my family live, and, I suspect, most people I know don’t either. Local democracy is failing in this country, and failing badly.

Naturally, of course, national governments are more important. However, a lot of the time, it is local councils who decide on the specific nature of the public services (and nowadays, cuts) people use or come into contact with on a regular basis; they matter enormously. Many people, one would suspect, don’t appreciate how influential councils are in the running of such services.

So, what is the solution? Well, part of the problem is the sheer complexity of the local government system. Trying to understand the irrational mess of county councils, metropolitan district councils, metropolitan borough councils, London borough councils, non-metropolitan district councils, unitary authorities and so forth (each of which, have different ways of, and timetables for, electing their members), is near on impossible. It is akin to being blindfolded and forced to play monopoly with a group of German investment bankers—you have no idea what is going on, nobody is speaking English, but, you’re pretty sure you’re getting fleeced.

Simplification should, then, be the first step. A move toward more unitary authorities, councils which are elected all at one go every four years and are responsible for both ‘tiers’ of local government, is desperately needed first step. In Scotland, where all councils are now unitary authorities and all elections happen in one go every four years, the evidence is that a far greater proportion of people can name one of their local representatives.

Elected mayors can also be helpful in raising the visibility of a council. However, most cities, when asked recently, whether they wanted ‘a Boris’, wholeheartedly rejected the idea, albeit on low turnout. The reason for this was poor campaigning on the part of the ‘yes’ camp, and a lack of concrete proposals. One did not feel anybody really cared.

There is, then, in this country, a staggering lack of voter engagement with local democracy, which is as damaging as it is shocking. One cannot help but feel that councillors are, through dint of voter apathy and ignorance, not being held to account. A frank and open debate is desperately needed, as to how to reverse this damaging trend.