Doorstep Democracy
7 June, 2007

Chris Leslie, Director
Progress Magazine

Despite the media’s coverage, local factors played heavily in May’s elections, finds Chris Leslie

It is the worry of local councillors throughout the ages: for all their efforts, carefully implemented council policies, casework, surgeries and doorstep campaigning, do the voters take a blind bit of notice when matched with the swirling vortex of national politics? Judging from the coverage of the local elections (masked as it was beneath a cleverly timed reshuffle), you’d imagine that Thursday 4 May was a referendum on Tony Blair’s premiership. Those of us who yearn for local elections to be determined by local issues wince at the depressing centralisation of the media coverage.

But all is not lost. The researchers at New Local Government Network took to the streets on election day and spoke with over 230 voters as they left polling stations across Greater London, unearthing some fascinating and encouraging facts.

Over three–quarters of respondents said that local issues were at least as important as national issues in shaping their decision. There were more local reasons given as their primary motive (crime, local environment, council tax etc) than national reasons. So while Westminster machinations loomed large, local political factors still packed a heavy punch.

Even more revealing were the responses to deeper questions about where power should rest in the country. When asked whether local or national politicians should run a variety of public services, strong majorities wanted policing, education and housing (as well as traditional council services) determined by local councillors.

If local government is to be taken seriously as the meeting point between the public and the public service, then it must increasingly become the default location for decision–making over day-to-day issues. Why should a pensioner or a young mum go to all the trouble of traipsing to a polling station if the choice they make has no appreciable impact on their daily lives? Councils need to be not only the ‘convening’ authority for public services, they need to assert their democratic mandate and insist on a closer integration of local quangos and agencies beneath the umbrella of public accountability.

Should we regard the mediocre 37 per cent turnout as a weathervane of the significance of local government today in the eyes of the public? In my view, low turnout isn’t just about the inconvenience of the polling station. Electronic and postal voting, if secure, can bring democracy closer to many, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this will dissolve apathy at a stroke. Winning over hearts and minds requires several steps forward.

First, local authorities need to dispel the myth that they are semi-competent bodies with poor-quality services. The past decade has seen massive improvements in performance, and this change needs to be shouted more loudly.

Second, Ruth Kelly’s forthcoming local government white paper and the Lyons inquiry at the end of 2006 need to signal a transformation of the balance of power in Britain, dispersing functions and financial mechanisms from Whitehall to town halls in every community.

Third, councils need to raise their game and engage their customers more adeptly, devising neighbourhood strategies that deliver real choices and options to residents, rebuilding their faith in the democratic compact.

Fourth, local politics needs stronger leadership, with positions of authority sufficiently attractive and weighty that they appeal to more than the retired, the volunteer or the monied classes. Whether elected mayors, leaders or cabinets, the individual must become a more prominent figure in the local media, so that everyone knows where the buck stops.

If power, wealth and opportunity are ever to be placed in the hands of the many rather than the few, being brave and trusting local democracy is a must.