Neil McInroy, CLES: Local government: a poor relation in Britain’s democracy

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We hear from one of our panel of local gov experts – Neil McInroy, Chief Exec of Centre for Local Economic Strategies – on why the local elections reaffirm the need to radically shift our approach to local democracy. And why we need to get bullish about it.

For all the national media talk of this being an ‘electoral earthquake’, as regards the rise of UKIP, these local elections are actually reaffirming longstanding trends.

It is no surprise that the vast majority of people do not vote in local elections. However, this, represents a major problem for our democracy and efforts to move to a brighter future for local government. The media has not helped, but if we in the local government community believe the solution to many of our local service ills, is predicated on getting more power and resource from Whitehall to local government, then we are going to have to address this turnout issue. These sorts of turnouts reinforce the perceptions in some quarters in Whitehall that Local government is not to be trusted or even irrelevant.

The local government community need to start aligning better with citizens, businesses and unions, sending messages to Whitehall which say – we believe in and want better local public services. New porous ways of involving citizens and voters in decisions about local services, new relationships and collaborations with local business and social sectors could all be key in generating an energy around the future of our public services and could improve turnouts. As it stands, if many voters ain’t bothered, there is very little pressure on Whitehall to reform.

Secondly, the penetration of national and European political issues onto local elections is inevitable. However the scale of this penetration, is something to worry about. We have unprecedented cuts, and a fundamental shift in the nature of local public services and uncertainty about their future. Even with this backdrop, strategic local issues fail to gain significant traction and debate. This is perhaps an indication of Whitehall’s general indifference and a Westminster bubble, which is ignorant to the issues.

In both of these points, it is clear. Local government should expect no help from the national media or from Whitehall. Instead it seems we will need to radically shift our own approach to local democracy and be even more bullish about what we need. In a new England, national and local government would be co-directors of a new England. We have a long way to go.