All politics is national
The Americans have a saying that: ‘all politics is local’. By this they mean that unless a politician really understands what is going on locally they will ultimately be unsuccessful. In Britain, George Galloway apart, our politicians seem to have totally forgotten this maxim and follow the principle that all politics, not matter how local on the face of things, is national.
To be honest, nothing annoys me more than sitting down for my annual local government election Dimbleby all-nighter and being greeted with Nick Robinson explaining to his hapless voters that ‘whilst these elections are local elections, and we should remember that, it is a massive night for (insert name) as he seeks to demonstrate that his party should form the next Government.’
And it’s not just political journalists but politicians as well. Local elections have become, at least in the minds of those that operate nationally, simply a proxy in the ongoing war between the two and half main parties we have in the UK.
Every year I as the election period approaches, alongside trying to remember what Purdah means, I have a secret hope that our elected politicians will treat these local elections as what they are; local elections.
This year seems likely to provide me with yet another disappointment.
On Monday Ed Miliband launched the Labour campaign for the local government elections. Did he mention how Conservative or Liberal Democrat councils were not delivering good services or praise Labour councils for their innovation? Did he at least mention any of the big issues that affect local government?
Errr, no. As the BBC reported:
Launching his party’s campaign in Birmingham, where he was joined by shadow cabinet colleagues, Mr Miliband highlighted the issues of crime, the NHS and jobs – saying Labour would do things differently from the government without spending more money.
In fairness to the Labour leader I thought I’d also check out his speech to make sure the BBC wasn’t just being over-centralist. The BBC are not at fault here. Here’s a section from early on in the speech:
The issues on which Labour will campaign in these local elections are rooted in real life, in the experiences people in every local authority area in the country; Living Standards, Jobs, the NHS, Crime.
Not a local government reference in sight; indeed, one could have watched the speech without actually knowing that it was in the run up to the local elections. No wonder that many councillors once elected do not feel they have a mandate to make radical changes in their local authority. After all, even their leader has spent most of his time talking about national issues.
The Liberal Democrats went yesterday and their launch was a little better, in that Nick Clegg mentioned local councils. Unfortunately, he didn’t exactly fill his audience with localist fervour as according to the BBC his focus was elsewhere:
Mr Clegg said: “I think it is right that the council elections this year will be tough for us because the last time we fought these seats was four years ago in a completely different political context.
“We’re now in government doing difficult things, controversial things, because we’re having to rescue the economy from the mess we inherited from Labour.”
But he said it was the time to be proud of being a Lib Dem, pointing to the rise in the amount of money people can earn before they start paying tax and the Pupil Premium – extra money for schools to help the most disadvantaged children.
He also championed “the biggest ever cash rise in the state pension of £5.30 a week” that will come in shortly.
So, no real mention of what the councils are doing; just a reference to the fact that it is easier to win council seats when a different party is in Government. To be fair to Mr Clegg he apparently also mentioned that Lib Dem-led councils were freezing council tax and trying to protect services from cuts.
How can we expect the people of our local communities to focus on their local area when voting in local elections when our politicians can’t? How can raise the esteem in which our local politicians are held when they, and the good work they are doing at a local level, is ignored?
I find this all a bit sad to be honest.
What’s even sadder is that the politicians are probably acting rationally. Local government is not well enough understood in this country; it serves for easy narratives for politicians to focus on national issues. We have a very centralised state. Taken together the room for wriggle at the local level is small enough that maybe it is entirely rational to vote based on national priorities.
In the UK, I think it might be safe to say that all politics is national.
Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org