Local democracy ain’t what it used to be.
It’s a unique vanity on the part of political leaders that they believe squinting at election results a certain way can somehow turn bad news into something better. Attempts by the tory hierarchy to describe last week’s devastating council losses in England as “better than expected” sounded on a par with saying a corpse is not as dead as it looks. Around 1300 ex-Conservative councillors would probably agree. What salvaged some respite for Mrs May is that a good number of the affected councils ‘retire by thirds’ - meaning that only 1 in 3 seats ever come up for grabs at one time. Things could have been a lot worse otherwise.
Council elections have come to be traditionally regarded as an opportunity for electors to register their discontent with Westminster by proxy.
It wasn’t always that way. Time was that people voted for representatives to serve on corporations that directly ran the buses, enforced public health and provided water services. Some even supplied gas and electricity to communities. Then came modernisation, privatisation, deregulation and enforced sell-offs.
Nowadays, local democracy largely seems to involve ‘sending a message’ to politicians higher up the food chain. This has always struck me as pointless given that the main parties seldom seem to listen to their own local members, let alone punters.
Whilst municipal elections may serve as a barometer for bigger things, their accuracy as predictors is questionable. Results in 2017 bore little resemblance to the outcome of the snap general election which followed, especially in Labour’s case.
That said, there were a couple of trends this time around that party managers across the spectrum will be attempting the digest. One of these is the noticeable growth in support for Green candidates and the near oblivion of Ukip as a local force.
Those with an interest in Northern Ireland politics will be considering the future impact that a resurgent cross-sectarian Alliance Party could have on power sharing. I accept that nostalgia can be just as prevalent in politics as in any other endeavour. Even so, I’m firmly of the opinion that the relegation of local government over the years to enabler rather than a provider has been a costly mistake. Sadly, it is one for which our communities continue to pay.
Are we devolving yet?
A poll conducted on the 20th anniversary of the referendum that created an elected Assembly for Wales came up with some unsurprising findings.
In essence, the institution is not massively popular, it’s widely misunderstood and would not be greatly missed if it was abolished overnight.
It must be said that such surveys carry similar gravitas to asking “What have the Romans ever done for us”. However, a recent conversation I had with someone highly placed in Welsh public life put things into uneasy perspective.
Their stark assessment of the Senedd and its works is that an independently-minded body committed to improving Wales unfortunately still occasionally comes across as a self-indulgent sixth-form body obsessed with talking to itself (bilingually).
I could (and did) counter each of these observations with facts about free prescriptions, smoking bans and suchlike. I added that people might actually prefer their own dysfunctional government to one imposed by Westminster.
Maybe the same question should have been included in the survey.