Disastrously low turnouts in last week’s local elections reinforce the sense of local democracy being in a dire state. Dissatisfaction with national politics is on the rise and calls for stronger regional voices grow ever louder, but local politics is clearly not filling this vacuum.
In Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham for instance, even the elected mayor referendums could not entice voters to the ballot box, with turnout hovering around the 24% mark. While a jaded and despondent electorate are unwilling to hold local politicians to account, increasingly we also cannot rely on opposition politicians or local press to fulfil this role. A number of local council results in the north have wiped out any semblance of effective opposition. Knowsley council is now effectively under a one party state with Labour gaining four seats from the Lib Dems to have an astonishing 63 out of 63 councillors. Rotherham, Tameside, Manchester, Halton and South Tyneside are not far behind. Added to this, is the rapid decline of local newspapers which have up to now played a key role in holding councils to account. Many local papers, which had large readerships and influence in the areas they served several years ago, have either disappeared or seen their circulation figures dwindle.
The directly elected mayor referendums themselves were met by a resounding no by the electorate. Despite David Cameron’s warning that those cities rejecting directly elected mayors would “fall behind”, only Bristol out of the ten cities holding referendums returned a yes vote. We remain the most centralised of all the OECD countries. If this is not to be the end of the localism agenda, we need to start devolving real power, not just titles.
But what are the solutions? It is easy to blame the main political parties and their decline in popularity but it seems public dissatisfaction is as much a problem of institutions as it is parties and personalities. There was no large move away from the big three parties in the local elections towards minor parties and independents. In fact the minor parties between them lost over 100 seats.
So how do we change those institutions which people feel are failing to represent them? A more muscular localism could help. Encouraging more of the “political establishment” to move outside London, particularly the London-centric national press, but even Lord Adonis’s suggestion of moving the House of Lords northwards would help to start to rebalance representation. Perhaps also there should be serious consideration of compulsory voting or even a move towards a proportional representation voting system in local elections so that people of all walks of life are engaged, particularly young people. Likewise, any further attempts to reinvigorate local democracy need to focus less on a token scattering of figureheads and more on devolving genuine power and corresponding responsibility.
Whatever the solutions, something has to be done to encourage a more thriving local democracy. The rationale is clear for why: more localism means policies for local areas that fit local need. If people care about good jobs, public services and a happy neighbourhood, then they should care about local democracy.
Graeme Henderson is a Research Fellow at IPPR North, IPPR’s dedicated think tank for the North of England.