On May 5, the most important inconsequential elections in recent times will take place. Two hundred local authorities, most of which were last contested four or five years ago when the two main parties had different leaders, will stand for election. The Conservative Party is watching closely, perhaps looking for a pretext to act against their blatant leader. Early indications suggest Labor will crush the Tories. There are a lot of things hanging over this election, which makes it all the stranger that so few people will actually vote.
Turnout in local elections is generally pitiful. In 2021, in all types of local government, voter turnout was only 36.2%. There has been a steady decline since the reorganization of local government in 1973, from which time comparable data exist. These are elections, remember, for local politicians who will run social services, schools, libraries, housing and planning, waste collection, licensing, business support, registry services, pest control. It’s an election with a quarter of all public spending in Britain at stake. And that’s not counting the national political consequences. It’s a big deal and yet, to be frank, hardly anyone cares.
The decision not to vote is usually cognitive rather than logistical. Some people lack interest in politics, some feel intimidated by knowing too little, and some are disillusioned with the process. In a poll of those who said they would definitely not vote in the May 2021 local elections, the top reason, cited by a quarter of non-voters, was the belief that their vote would make no difference. So it follows that programs aimed at making voting more convenient – while perfectly acceptable on their own – are unlikely to make much of a difference. Low turnout in local elections tells us something much more important than how difficult it is for people to vote. He tells us that people don’t think local elections matter much.
The disturbing fact is that they are not wrong. Local politics sometimes offers an apprenticeship to politicians in search of a national stage. Steve Reed, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, was leader of Lambeth Council between 2006 and 2012. Jim McMahon, the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was the head of Oldham for five years. Some local politicians go all the way. Clement Attlee was mayor of Stepney, east London, in 1919. John Major was housing chairman in Lambeth in 1970 and Theresa May chaired the education committee of Merton Borough Council in 1988. Then there is Boris Johnson, although London City Hall is quite a different kind of local government.
The truth, however, is that national politicians don’t like or trust local governments. The Labor Party is defined by its quest for equality, which naturally leads to a demand for the centralization of power. Labor looks askance at regional variations, even if they have been singled out. It must also be said that the national management was not won over by some of the most important labor councils. The greatest moment in modern Labor rhetoric, from Bournemouth in 1985, was Neil Kinnock excoriating a Labor council for its absurd spending plans.
The Conservative Party, at least until it discovered the existence of inequalities in the white paper on leveling, had fewer problems with regional variations, but tended to denigrate local government as the home of socialists. debauchers and various disbelievers of other allegiances. David Cameron’s government was both an important ally and a serious enemy of local government. George Osborne’s defense of metropolitan mayors and his desire to empower them was a serious act of decentralization.
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Yet, at the same time, these changes were denied the funding they would have needed to be considered truly serious. The austerity program during the Cameron years was mainly channeled through local government. The purchasing power of English councils has fallen by 16% between 2010 and 2020. The central government grant – the largest component of local authority funding – has been cut by 37% over the same period. By the end of this decade, 73% of district councils and 46% of county councils indicated that they had already drawn on their reserves or were planning to do so. The combination of control and a lack of financial generosity came together in the 2011 Localism Act, which stipulated that local authorities had to hold a referendum if they wanted to raise council tax by more than 2%.
Since the creation of the first central tax grant in 1835, power in the British state has only ever flowed in one direction. The UK government’s revenue-raising powers are limited compared to other wealthy countries. In 2014, all other G7 countries collected more taxes at the local or regional level as a percentage of total tax revenue. Unlike the central government, local authorities are not able to borrow to finance current expenditure. They are forced either to balance the budget or to dip into the reserves.
As things stand, both sides are committed to greater decentralization of powers. It is conceivable that the power distribution proposals will turn out to be one of the only lasting legacies of the race-to-the-top white paper. Without more money, however, it will be a sort of hollow power. The Labor Party, meanwhile, has quietly pledged to increase the powers of local governments, as the oppositions are used to doing. Whether that commitment survives a general election victory is still the question.
Until there is a reversal of the tide of power local elections are unlikely to generate much interest, although pusillanimous Tory MPs hope the electorate will do the dirty work for them by overthrowing the prime minister. Until then, the failure of two-thirds of the electorate to turn up to vote appears to be a rational response to a decline in power. It’s not popular apathy; it is a political commentary.
[See also: We need electoral reform to end Britain’s rotten boroughs]