The local elections that took place across England were somewhat overshadowed by the London Mayoral contest, along with the fifth cycle of elections to devolved national institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
The lack of relative profile given to the English local council elections appears to reflect the contradictory approach of a Conservative government. On the one hand arguing that localism should be advanced, while at the same time viewing local government democracy as a relatively trivial matter.
This is a partial and profoundly misleading depiction. The local dimension plays a key role in the democratic process, operating at a closer level to citizens and thus providing a significant link between politics and the people.
However, the civic relationship between citizens and local government has been complicated by ongoing decentralisation of the governance of England over the past two years – with the North of England most affected. This is because the region has proven central to the “devolution revolution”, heralded by George Osborne.
Two interconnected and overlapping political projects, the so-called “Northern Powerhouse” and a series of “city region deals”, have sought to redress regional economic imbalances, give (allegedely) more powers to local authorities, and enhance political leadership via the introduction of directly elected metro mayors.
However, looking at last week’s local elections results, there seems to be little to suggest that the Conservative government’s focus on rejuvenating the economic fortunes of the North has encouraged greater citizen participation. Some suggest that one of the principle objectives of the “Northern Powerhouse” initiative is to provide opportunities for the Conservatives to make inroads into Labour’s Northern strongholds. However, the elections’ results highlight that this could take some time.
Labour maintained its electoral stranglehold on the main metropolitan centres of the North, with few examples of a Conservative “city revival”. The Conservatives strengthened their presence in many of the North’s rural localities, allowing them to challenge claims of a North South political divide.
What was worrying though was the number of votes for the mayoral elections in Liverpool and Salford – where turnout was 30.9% and 30% – hardly ringing public endorsements for the principle of directly elected mayors after two election cycles. Although turnout in the London mayoral election increased from 38% to 45.3%, the campaign itself drew attention to the potential that personality focused approaches to political leadership often encourage crass and reductive electoral politics.
Only in Bristol, did the mayoral election campaign capture the electorate’s imagination to a much greater extent than in 2012 – the turnout was higher at 44.87%. As it stands, turnout for mayoral elections in England has not been over 50% of the electorate – which does not bode well for the forthcoming Greater Manchester mayoral elections to be held in May 2017.
The power in Powerhouse
The extent that the “Northern Powerhouse” and city deals initiatives will energise local democracy is open to debate, particularly as many of these reforms have been introduced without citizens being consulted.
The primary focus of the “Northern Powerhouse” narrative has largely been on the technocratic development of economic synergies through transport infrastructure – with little consideration of its democratic ramifications. Meaning that the democratic link between the “Northern Powerhouse”, city region devolution and civic engagement has been largely overlooked by politicians at both a national and local level.
There has been little consideration of the impact of developing amalgamated city regional governmental frameworks on the role and resonance of local councillors in their communities. Few “backbench” local councillors have been consulted or involved in the signing of “devo-deals”. They are, in many ways, as uncertain as most citizens about the design and purpose of decentralisation.
The development of city region government raises the possibility that local councillors will be disempowered and become increasingly peripheral. The increasingly complicated formations of city-regional government – evident in the diverse forms of “city-deals” signed so far across the North – could leave citizens confused. With the potential to lead to further disengagement from a system people barely understand.
Oil the wheels
The transfer of some policy making traditionally associated with local government to combined authorities means that citizens are increasingly unclear about who is responsible for what, especially in terms of public service delivery in their local communities. It is likely that many citizens will lack the necessary political literacy to understand the respective responsibilities of their local councillors, city region representatives, and MPs.
All this seems to suggest that the “goodwill” of central government, combined local authorities and businesses alone will not be sufficient to put real power into the North if the people are not with them.
Without plugging into local politics and democracy, the “Northern Powerhouse” will likely lack the popular support it needs to function, remaining only a slogan or an abstract concept that fails to captures the imagination of citizens across the North.
The role of local politics is integral to the success or otherwise of both the “Northern Powerhouse” and “city-region” agendas, especially in terms of democratic accountability and legitimacy. And it is unlikely that either will flourish in the public perception if, as suggested by the results of the recent election, we see a continuing disconnect at local level.