Today the UK population are going to the polls to vote in the annual local elections. These elections decide which political party (Labour, Conservatives or Liberals) get to hold power in many of the UK’s local administrations. Each local area elects local politicians (‘councillors’) to run the local authority and make local tax, spend as well as key local services and planning decisions on behalf of the local electorate. There is one big problem though: most people don’t know who their local councillor is, or for that matter what they do. These elections – like many of the US federal mid-terms – are too often simply a referendum on the governing executive of the day.
In most regions of the UK, less than one-in-three could name the local politician representing them at the local authority. Hence why, every year when there are local elections the national media use results – with some justification – as a barometer of the national political party leaders prospects at the next general election. However, if you stop and think about this current system you would realise this is complete madness! These local politicians are decision-makers in their own right, they have important decisions to take and should in their own right have to earn the trust of their local electorate on what they will do (not what the national leader has done). It’s surely pure madness that a high performing local councillor could simply find themselves collateral damage to a system which sees local elections first and foremost as a national opinion poll.
The UK are now slowly catching up with some of the American innovations in local democracy such as directly elected city-mayors and police commissioners. In London, where the mayoralty is now becoming firmly established since its introduction well over a decade ago, there is an increasing decoupling between the drivers of voter choice (i.e. mayoral personality) and the national picture (i.e. government popularity) meaning a greater electoral focus on local issues (i.e. transport fares, housing and crime). Yet the national media will no doubt analyse the London Mayor election in the same way it will local election results: what it means for national political party prospects rather than what it means for local voters.
So the introduction of more localised television media broadcasters and coverage in some parts of the UK may start to tackle the national sate bias, but for the foreseeable future the impact is likely to be very marginal. We know disconnects between state decision-makers and society matters hugely, regardless of whether it is at the national or local level, as it results in a breakdown of legitimacy (collective trust) and deters potential active citizens from participating in partnership with the state to strengthen society.
If politicians were serious about a transformational form of localism in the UK they would surely need to consider not just devolving power (“from Westminster to the City Hall”) but de-nationalising party politics. To create a stronger physical and psychological link between local society and local state, local administrations need their own political identities. One of the most radical ways of doing this would be for national state to ban the local candidates standing under national party names (in the UK this would include Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats)
The immediate result would be that each local party would have to find a new and distinctive name for their candidates to fight a local election under. Who knows, maybe new local parties emerge (and decline) based around new grouping that more accurately reflect local needs rather than national tribal politics? Of course though local politicians of new local parities could still be active grassroot-members of their national political party and no doubt still keen to campaign for them at the UK general election. Additionally, if there are concerns that the British electorate would lose its ability each year to “give the westminster government a bloody nose” or to “issue a protest vote” in between general elections, then an annual national plebiscite could be held! Something along the lines of ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you with the government’s performance to date’ and ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you with the opposition’s performance to date’
However, one final word on this. There is more chance of hell freezing over than the de-nationalisation of party politics in the UK. Firstly party politics is highly tribal and like British soccer teams the fans show irrational levels of loyalty and passion for their star players. Secondly the star players themselves would never want to tell their fans to diversify their focus away from tribal party loyalties – for a start there is a big risk the fans wouldn’t come back at general election time and they are seen as their troops who help win general elections.
In short the path dependency of the current UK party political system prevents innovative transformational change to enhance local democracy. Still, it’s a neat idea for any radicals out there!