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A pandemic election: local votes approach during tense moment for relations with Westminster

One of the key concerns about local elections is always their low turnout, unless there is a very specific community issue of concern, such as a hospital closure. This apparent lack of interest, by the electorate, in voting for politicians to run their councils has always been used by governments to undermine the relevance of local politicians when the latter make representations against national policies that directly affect them – planning, housing and major transport schemes.

The larger turnout achieved in parliamentary elections is used to validate the idea that decisions are best made from the centre. Of course, the low turnout in local elections may reflect the public’s understanding that local government’s powers are small and can be easily overridden by Westminster and Whitehall. They may feel that there is no point in exercising a vote if it doesn’t really matter.

This undermining of locally elected political representatives and the role that they play in their communities has ramped up during the pandemic. And indeed, the 2021 local elections almost didn’t go ahead. Some, including the London mayoral vote, have been postponed since 2020.

Up until just a few months ago, there were doubts as to whether they could be held during the pandemic. Would they have to be full postal elections? How would parties be able to canvass for support? Could people speak on their doorsteps? Local authority returning officers started to express concern that it would not be possible to hold elections in these conditions. Eventually, at the last possible moment, the elections were called.

Judgement on the centre?

These votes are the electorate’s first opportunity to pass any judgement on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis. Johnson’s highly centralised approach has undermined and bypassed local authorities’ long-held role in managing public heath emergencies. Personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and test-and-trace services were procured centrally. In the autumn of 2020, local authorities and their political leaders despaired when Westminster imposed different levels of lockdown – and different levels of financial support – for different parts of the country.

Local government is part of a multi-level governance of the British state. But, unlike the rest of the OECD member countries, its role is not included within the constitution. This means local authority powers are at the whim of the government in power.

Local authorities have, for some time, felt that Westminster increasingly perceives local government as a “sector” – that is, an external group of agencies to be controlled rather than an inherent part of government, working as partners. Even so, they were stunned by how centralised the pandemic response ended up being.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham
Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has repeatedly clashed with London. Alamy

Local authorities and, where they existed, directly elected mayors of combined authorities, started to speak out. The drama played out in nightly TV broadcasts, particularly as Manchester mayor Andy Burnham took on London. Local leaders had the support of their MPs. This was particularly illustrated through the outspoken support for Greater Manchester, its mayor and local authorities by Graham Brady, a local Conservative MP but also chairman of the influential parliamentary backbench 1922 Committee – the only group of MPs who can unseat the prime minister.

Meanwhile, first ministers in Scotland and Wales could choose lockdown measures, work at the local level, close borders and report daily on how the pandemic challenges were being addressed. These powers were not available to the mayors and local authority leaders who were subject to centralised diktat, only adding to their frustration.

Thinking more local

Although not initially given funding to carry out their own test-and-trace services, local directors of public health started to deal with the pandemic in more traditional ways – gathering information, testing, reaching those failed by the privatised call centres and supporting the vulnerable, including providing PPE to care homes.

And as the vaccine rollout began, it quickly became clear that more localised efforts would be needed if it was to be effective across the population. The implementation of the vaccination programme through the NHS provided the evidence that local systems work and are trusted.

The local vaccination delivery had been able to develop away from the politicised spotlight and introduced to growing public approval. These successes must surely have contributed to the poll boost currently being enjoyed by the prime minister.

A good showing at the local elections could encourage Johnson to make a run for an early general election – after a good summer, while booster jabs are being given and before any new variants require further lockdowns later in the year. The PM may also use the experiences of the past year to learn the positive lessons of a localised approach. However, he could just as easily view all this as a short-term fix before going back to the recentralisation programme that was in full swing during 2020. The forthcoming devolution white paper and its consequences for local government hang on this thread.

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