On 5 May, the most consequential inconsequential elections of recent times will take place. Two hundred local authorities, most of them last contested four or five years ago when both main parties had different leaders, will be up for election. The Conservative Party is watching closely, perhaps searching for a pretext to act against their egregious leader. The early indications suggest Labour will thrash the Tories. There is a lot hanging on these elections, which makes it all the stranger that so few people will actually vote.
Turnout in local elections is usually pitiful. In 2021, across all types of local authority turnout at elections was just 36.2 per cent. There has been a steady decline since the reorganisation of local government in 1973, from which time comparable data exists. These are elections, remember, for the local politicians who will run social care, schools, libraries, housing and planning, waste collection, licensing, business support, registrar services, pest control. They are elections with a quarter of all public spending in Britain at stake. And that’s without considering the national political consequences. It’s a big deal and yet, to be blunt about it, hardly anyone cares.
The decision not to vote is usually cognitive rather than logistical. Some people lack interest in politics, some feel intimidated by knowing too little, and some are disillusioned by the process. In a poll of those who said they would definitely not vote in the May 2021 local elections, the main reason, cited by a quarter of non-voters, was the belief their vote would make no difference. It therefore follows that schemes to make voting more convenient – while perfectly fine in themselves – are not likely to make much difference. Low turnout in local elections is telling us something much more important than how inconvenient the people find voting. It is telling us that the people don’t think local government elections matter very much.
The troubling fact is that they are not wrong. Local politics does occasionally provide an apprenticeship for politicians who are seeking a national stage. Steve Reed, the shadow secretary of state for Justice, was the leader of Lambeth Council between 2006 and 2012. Jim McMahon, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs was the leader in Oldham for five years. Some local politicians make it all the way. Clement Attlee was the mayor of Stepney, east London, in 1919. John Major was the chair of housing in Lambeth in 1970 and Theresa May chaired the education committee on Merton Borough Council in 1988. Then there is Boris Johnson, although the London mayoralty is a rather different species of local government.
The truth, though, is that national politicians neither like nor trust local government. The Labour Party is defined by its quest for equality, which leads naturally to a demand to centralise power. Labour looks askance at regional variations, even if they were chosen. It has to be said, too, that the national leadership has been less than enamoured with some of the most prominent Labour councils. The greatest moment in modern Labour Party rhetoric, from Bournemouth in 1985, was Neil Kinnock excoriating a Labour council for its absurd spending plans.
The Conservative Party, at least until it discovered the existence of inequality in the levelling-up white paper, had fewer problems with regional variation but tended to denigrate local government as the home of profligate socialists and sundry miscreants of other stripes. The David Cameron government was both a significant ally and a serious enemy to local government. George Osborne’s championing of metropolitan mayors and his desire to vest them with power was a serious act of devolution.
Yet, at the same time, these changes were denied the funding they would have needed to count as truly serious. The programme of austerity during the Cameron years was essentially channeled through local government. The spending power of English councils fell 16 per cent between 2010 and 2020. The grant from central government – the biggest component of local government funding – was cut by 37 per cent during the same period. At the end of that decade, 73 per cent of district councils and 46 per cent of county councils reported either that they had already dipped into their reserves or that they planned to do so. The combination of control and lack of financial generosity came together in the 2011 Localism Act, which stipulated that local authorities must hold a referendum if they want to raise the council tax by more than 2 per cent.
Ever since the creation of the first central revenue grant in 1835, the power in the British state has only ever flowed in one direction. The revenue-raising powers of British government are limited compared with other wealthy countries. In 2014, every other G7 nation collected more taxes at either a local or regional level as a percentage of total tax revenue. Unlike central government, local authorities are unable to borrow to fund day-to-day spending. They are compelled either to balance the budget or to draw on reserves.
Both parties, as we stand, have a commitment to greater devolution of power. It may conceivably be that the proposals to spread power prove to be one of the only durable legacies of the levelling-up white paper. Without any more money, though, it will be a hollow sort of power. The Labour Party, meanwhile, has quietly committed to increasing the powers of local government, as oppositions are wont to do. Whether this commitment survives a victory at a general election is always the question.
Until there is a reversal in the flow of power, there is unlikely to be much interest in local elections, even if pusillanimous Tory MPs are hoping the electorate will do their dirty work for them by ousting the Prime Minister. Until such a time, the failure of two thirds of the electorate to show up to vote seems like a rational response to a decline in power. This is not popular apathy; it’s political commentary.