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2 September 2023

Stop making local issues national

From Ulez to Andy Burnham, the whole country is viewed through the lens of Westminster and the general election.

By Jonn Elledge

One of my greatest professional shames – and goodness me is that a competitive list – is quite how little I know about Wales. I don’t mean the country itself, exactly, although no doubt I’m fairly ignorant on that score too. What I mean is that, despite the fact I’ve been writing about politics and public policy for quite a few years now, I have very little sense of how things are going west of Offa’s Dyke.

Embarrassed as I am, though, I don’t think it’s entirely my fault. Much of what I do know about politics and public policy is gleaned from spending a lot of time reading newspapers, and even more on political Twitter. On neither have events in Wales featured very strongly – until the last few weeks, when I learned from the Tory press office that the Welsh Labour government was running the country’s NHS “into the ground”.

That may or may not be true – this is exactly the sort of thing I feel I should know – but the reason this attack line has broken through is because it was disseminated not just by the Welsh Conservatives, but by their pals in Westminster. In mainstream UK political discourse, Wales is less a country than a cautionary tale aimed at those who might vote Labour. 

This combination of ignorance or misunderstanding of other parts of the UK is neither new nor restricted to Wales. We pay more attention to Scotland (it would be pretty hard to pay less). But the transition from Nicola Sturgeon to Humza Yousaf has still been framed largely in terms of what it means for either the Labour Party or the future of the UK: actually existing Scotland rarely comes into it. Northern Ireland doesn’t even get that dignity: the only time it featured in the conversation at all was when it was an embarrassing block to Brexit. 

It would be easy to look at this and assume that it’s a classic case of a decadent capital city either bored by or ignorant of events in the provinces. I think it’s something more though.

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Because our political discourse hardly does a great job of covering London either. The media’s breathless excitement at how Boris Johnson spent his eight years as mayor had almost nothing to do with what he did for the city. (It couldn’t: he did remarkably little.) Instead, they were all about the possibility he might return to the Commons, doing all sorts of exciting things to the Tory party in the process. And, lo it came to pass.

[See also: Labour isn’t winning, the Tories are losing]

In the same manner, our weeks-long national conversation about the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) has been framed almost entirely in terms of what it means for national politics. We discuss the divisions between Sadiq Khan and Keir Starmer, and whether it creates a space for the Tories to resurrect their flagging poll ratings in outer London seats like Uxbridge and South Ruislip. We do not discuss whether the policy is any good. Even the very real possibility that Ulez, plus a change in electoral system, could allow the Tories’ baffling and terrifying choice of candidate Susan Hall to actually win the capital’s mayoral election next year has attracted very little attention. No, we don’t talk about Wales; but we don’t really talk about London either. 

Or, indeed, anywhere else. Two hundred miles to the north, Andy Burnham is covered entirely with the same goal, if not the same tone, as Boris Johnson once was. No one cares about the actually quite impressive range of things he’s done for Greater Manchester (the “Beelines” cycle network, bus franchising, the homelessness strategy). The only question we discuss is whether he might return to Westminster one day, because that’s where all the real politics happens.

And Burnham is by some distance the most high-profile non-London mayor. When did you last read about what Andy Street has been up to? Or Tracy Brabin? If you don’t know where either is the mayor of, it merely proves my point.

Which is that our political discourse – the papers, the broadcasters, all the social media conversation that happens between-times – is concerned only with one type of politics, which happens in one London postcode. Local election results are viewed through the lens of what they might mean at the next general election. A successful mayor is of interest only in so far as they can cause ructions for their party’s national leadership. Nothing outside SW1 is allowed, in its own terms, to exist.

Partly the issue here is the structure of the state – the UK, England especially, is one of the most centralised states in the Western world. But it’s also because of the structure of the media. The industry is overwhelmingly based in London; budget cuts mean regional coverage has declined; industrial correspondents, who once covered interaction between politics and regional economies, are largely a thing of the past.

So most of our political coverage instead runs through the lobby, a group of people mainly employed to write about the horse race: who’s up, who’s down, what does this mean for the leadership and the next general election. So Brexit was treated as a story of parliamentary soap opera or war within the Tory party, not one of economics, diplomacy and international trade; and even Covid was covered largely by political correspondents. 

You can understand why this happens: human drama is simply more clickable than boring technical explanations. But it’s nonetheless a terrible way of understanding this country and what is happening in it. And it means we only talk about Wales when suddenly it’s useful to Conservative Party electoral strategy.

[See also: The war on motorists is a myth]

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