Local elections are no longer the predictor they once were. So let's stop using them as a general election barometer—and realise that local politics matters for its own sakeby Eve Livingston / May 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Nottingham council has introduced an innovative new Robin Hood energy scheme. Depending on who you’ve been listening to since polling closed, yesterday’s local election results can be comfortably placed anywhere on a scale from Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate resignation to an outright loss for the Conservatives in the next general election—quite an achievement for a set of results which show, ultimately, nothing very much has changed. It is precisely because the results of local elections can be spun as anything for anyone that, on a national level, they end up meaning very little at all. With these council races marking the first time large swathes of the UK have visited the polls since last year’s snap general election, the results were always going to serve as an electoral thermometer. And historically they have been a fairly accurate one, with traditional wisdom holding that opposition parties on track to win general elections should generally overperform in local votes. But the accuracy of this measure has been shaken since the last Labour government: projections from 2014 local election results predicted a majority for Ed Miliband in the Commons, while 2017’s snap election saw Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour become the first opposition party to perform better in a general election than the local elections prior. Context matters There are any number of reasons why local elections provide little indication of the outcomes of a hypothetical national election. Expectation management, for example, is a bigger issue in local contests with smaller electorates where parties need to strike a balance between convincing voters and activists that they can win, whilst also ensuring they turn out to knock doors and vote. Electorates themselves also matter: they can be so small as to decide multiple wards on a handful of votes, and hyperlocal or demographic issues are represented in the results in a way that is less certain at constituency level—Barnet’s Jewish community, for instance, may compose a big enough proportion of council voters to make their voices heard on Labour’s anti-semitism scandals, but their influence is likely to be diluted at parliamentary level. And different contexts play to different parties’ strengths: Labour’s diverse coalition of students, lower-income families and BME voters are generally less likely to turn out locally, and their mass movement approach lends itself better to utopian debates about the future of work and the economy than to notice board flyers about community centres and parks. Why councils matter To spend too long dwelling on the national implications of local elections, though, is not only fruitless but crucially also does a disservice to the importance of local democracy on its own terms. While the steadfast stereotype of council politics has been as the boring cousin of glamorous Westminster, dominated by bumbling local busybodies and preoccupied with potholes, local government matters hugely to communities. This influence has generally been most visible when it goes wrong: most viscerally, of course, in the case of Grenfell Tower and questions about the failure of Kensington and Chelsea Council to act on the concerns of residents. But sometimes it also goes right. Take Labour-controlled Preston City Council, for example, who have received considerable attention in the past year for managing to rejuvenate their failing economy by working with a growing public sector to encourage local investment and partnership. A city marred by the effects of austerity imposed by a national government its residents didn’t vote for, Preston has shown what a community can do when it takes matters into its own hands. A pay rise for care workers City councils in Salford and Nottingham have likewise tackled the issues blighting their communities head-on, with the former giving care workers a 10.7 per cent pay rise and building the city’s first social housing in thirty years while the latter’s innovative Robin Hood Energy scheme has seen them launch the first not-for-profit energy company owned by a local authority in a bid to eradicate fuel poverty. These transformative projects each illustrate the potential of local government to transform their communities for the better so long as they are empowered to do so. Local government, then, can often provide the conditions for the types of genuinely grassroots, community-building radical action which national politicians tend to evoke in rousing speeches but largely struggle to achieve at a parliamentary level. This makes it all the more frustrating that council budgets have been cut by nearly 50 per cent since 2010 and that increased centralisation has gradually eroded many of their powers. Ironically, these are the types of local issues that those jostling for national power should be judged upon. Instead, we see the results of hyperlocal and vastly disparate contests extrapolated into national scenarios in an exercise which is at best largely pointless and at worst a reckless dismissal of the importance of local democracy in its own right. Our communities are the bedrock of our society: their voices should be valued as such.