In his New Year’s message of December 2019, Boris Johnson called on the British public to “bid farewell to the division, the rancour, the uncertainty” that had “held this country back for too long.” Just two weeks earlier, the Prime Minister had won the Conservative Party its largest parliamentary majority since 1987 on the back of a promise to “Get Brexit Done”. At midnight, the UK would leave the European Union. Johnson predicted a “fantastic year”, where “the people’s government” would “deliver the people’s priorities”, “levelling up” the country.
A little over 14 months later, and in the run-up to May’s local elections, Spotlight, the New Statesman‘s policy supplement, has surveyed local councillors from across the UK on the government’s record so far, and received 422 responses. While Covid-19 would have disrupted the best-laid plans of any government, the verdict of local council representatives on Westminster’s pandemic response reflects the country’s beleaguered state.
What do councillors think about the government’s pandemic response?
Two-thirds rated the government’s handling of the pandemic poor or very poor. A clear party divide was evident, as Conservative councillors appeared far more likely to give their government the benefit of the doubt. While 18 per cent of Tory councillors said austerity had hindered their ability to deal with the crisis, only 8 per cent said they had not received adequate Covid support. In contrast, a whopping 92 per cent of Labour and 86 per cent of Lib Dem respondents said the same. But party loyalties didn’t prevent 38 per cent of Conservatives expressing pessimism about the future of their local authorities, or 35 per cent saying they were concerned over the links between ministers and companies awarded public contracts.
In many areas, Number 10’s response has accentuated perennial questions about the UK’s over-centralised governance model and its shaky constitutional arrangements. The top-down approach of SW1 has led to an inflexible, one-size-fits-all strategy in everything from test and trace (82 per cent said it would have been better managed by local authorities) to mass testing (64 per cent said the testing programme had been poor or very poor). Despite the almost identical death toll between England and Scotland, Holyrood is perceived as a steady hand set against a chaotic Whitehall – judged by their pandemic responses, Nicola Sturgeon was the highest-rated politician among councillors, but Johnson came last.
Asked whether the UK did everything it could to limit coronavirus deaths, 75 per cent of respondents disagreed or disagreed strongly, although among Conservatives that figures was 20 per cent.
What did councillors think about “levelling up” and Brexit?
The coronavirus has put paid to many of the optimistic predictions for the beginning of a “roaring twenties” – 68 per cent of our respondents said they were worried about the future of their areas – including 38 per cent of Conservatives – and 69 per cent of respondents overall said Brexit would make their areas worse.
Johnson’s new voter coalition has eaten away at Labour’s “Red Wall”, and promises of an end to austerity and “levelling up” are oft-repeated. But despite Rishi Sunak’s high-spending fiscal response (which won the approval of a quarter of our Labour respondents), 83 per cent of councillors said the levelling-up strategy had added no tangible benefit to their areas. Among Conservative councillors, 59 per cent said the strategy has not added a tangible benefit to their areas.
Overall 75 per cent of councillors said they did not believe the government would deliver on its pledge to level up before the next election. Confidence was higher among Tories, however. Eighteen per cent said they did not expect the strategy to yield results before the next election.
In a sign of how Conservative orthodoxy on balanced budgets, austerity and fiscal prudence has shifted, more Labour and Lib Dem councillors agreed with the statement that levelling up was now “unaffordable” (23 and 32 per cent respectively), than their Conservative counterparts.
And what about party politics?
Given the bleak picture painted by responses to our poll, one might expect the opposition to be surging as a government-in-waiting. But only just over a third of Labour councillors said they thought their party would form the next government, and only 6 per cent of councillors overall said they expected a Labour majority.
Labour is downplaying its prospects for May’s elections, citing the vaccine roll-out and the easing of lockdown as reasons for another “Boris bounce”. Though nobody is under any illusions about whether we’ve had a “fantastic year”, one crucial statistic might explain the pessimism in Labour’s ranks. While our poll showed almost 90 per cent of its councillors held the government responsible for the coronavirus death rate, a YouGov survey published during last December’s surge in cases indicated that voters were far more likely to
pin blame for that surge elsewhere: on the public.
Additional data reporting and monitoring by Ben Stevens.
This article originally features in the upcoming Spotlight policy report on regional development.