Local Legends

HANNAH MARTIN peers beyond the glossy parliamentary politics to the unsung heroes of local government.

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I spent Thursday night and Friday morning sorting and counting votes in Sutton, South London. On Thursday night, the Liberal Democrats bucked the national trend, holding onto both their parliamentary seats, both of which were under serious challenge from the Conservatives. As I helped out with the local elections, one thing became increasingly obvious: coverage in the media elevates national politics disproportionately, whereas, realistically, real change is more likely to be made within local politics.

Did organising the future of this area via local council votes feel any less momentous than sorting through ballots for Sutton & Cheam’s parliamentary candidates? No. Devolved government has always been tragically misunderstood. Westminster politicians have a tendency to roll their eyes about the role of local government, and turnout is usually around 10% lower for the council elections than for parliamentary ones. The turnout this year has shot up to nearly 70%, probably due to heightened wider interest in the political process, though it has lurked depressingly in the 40s in previous years.

Actually, the local elections may well matter more than the national ones. For a start, local elections happen more frequently than general ones, with some scattered across the country every other year, and they act as a pretty good predictor of the state of things to come. Local elections in 2006 saw a broadening of the political arena – as the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the BNP (whose over-hyped increase in support sparked frenzy in the media) gained seats, pluralism seemed very much set to be the order of the day. Four years later, we have a hung parliament. Coincidence? I think not. Moreover, mass-scale devolution commenced from 1997, with increasing amounts of power turned over to National Assemblies and directly elected mayors. While it may send a shiver down the spine of manic centraliser Mrs. Thatcher, there are no two ways about it: local government is back.

Most importantly, local government has a hell of a lot more power than most people realise. Those who belittle it do so at their peril: the fact is that your local council wields a massive amount of influence compared to your MP. Backbench MPs, who comprise the vast majority of the House of Commons, actually have little or no local power whatsoever. Their job is to listen to residents and then attempt to raise awareness of issues in Parliament and in the council. If you go to your MP on a local issue, there is actually absolutely nothing they can promise you to do about it, other than make a fuss (and you’re probably capable of doing that yourself). Most MPs are also slaves to the party whips, making them even less significant to their constituents.

Councils run social services, street cleaning, road maintenance, refuse collection. They dictate environmental care. They stipulate how much council tax you pay and where it goes. In short, from council houses to child protection, it is being dealt with in your town hall; not a stuffy Whitehall office in the capital. This fact needs to be more widely recognised and appreciated. Local councillors are often the most dedicated and least valued of politicians. Councils are stuck in an endless grapple with central government, which can offer and withdraw resources at its whim, and in the recession especially, must do the best with what they have got.  Actually, they are doing pretty well: reviews have charted a continuous path towards higher standards, often combined with low council tax increases. Local government is almost certainly more efficient than the rest of the public sector.

For people who want change in politics and care about local issues, local government is absolutely vital. It is this grassroots change that is the essence of real politics, no matter how colourful, shiny and temporarily distracting the Westminster parade might be.