Happy local election day! In the unique way of our quirky local democratic traditions, a complicated collection of nearly all English metropolitan boroughs, most district councils and some unitaries are holding elections today.
Across the country, pavements have been pounded by local party activists, rosettes brandished and doorstep conversations held in earnest. Meanwhile hundreds of teams of council officers have cleared the diaries to manage the counting of ballots efficiently and transparently. This early May day is the culmination of all this effort – political and practical – when millions of us get the opportunity to exercise our democratic choice.
But of all the traditions associated with the annual rhythm of our local democracy, the most irritating is the national media’s insistence that the local elections be viewed through the prism of national politics. This year they are asking will Theresa May receive a boost? What will the results say about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership? What will it all mean for Brexit?
Clearly this year the dominance of our exit strategy from the EU is a pretty hefty backdrop for the analysis of the results. But it has been the same year-in-year-out. The preferences of local electorates are seen primarily as a barometer of the popularity of the Government of the day, and the threat or not of the Opposition.
Intrigue in the halls of Westminster has a more glamorous attraction to the media than local issues which often get pejoratively boiled down to “bins and potholes”. But, as they say, “all politics is local”. It is conceivable that the issues that actually matter for people’s lives – good quality affordable housing, a safe and clean environment or elderly relatives cared for – might be what motivates a person to cast their vote.
Certainly all national policy has local manifestations. It is at the local level that people understand the impact of decisions made at Westminster – for better or worse, and in turn where their perception of the country’s health is calibrated.
Rather than all local elections being seen as weather vanes for national politics, maybe in the future national elections should be seen in a more nuanced way as the combination of a collection of local preferences. As previous NLGN and University of Southampton research has shown, characteristics of cosmopolitan urban areas and coastal-provincial areas or post-industrial towns were strong indicators for Remain and Leave voting preferences.
Our recent Community Paradigm report advocates renewing our democracy from the ground up. Whereas our recent experience of national direct democracy has created real division in the country after a close referendum result, it is at a local level that deliberative forums and participatory democracy can forge shred understanding of issues and seek to build consensus.
This nuance is too often lost on a national media hungry for a story. But as millions of us cast our ballot today, it might well be worth remembering that for most people life goes on outside the Westminster Bubble, and the results may well be an indicator of just that.