A great day at Reboot Britain today. For me, one of the highlights was FutureGov’s “Learning to Love Local Government”. I can confess to some previous form in this area – my first public sector job was as a local government officer in the mid-90s, and though I’ve been far more wrapped up in the central government world since then I have an interest – perhaps increasingly so in recent months – in the role and relevance of government at the local level.
A very good panel – knowledge, creativity and passion in equal measure. Credit to Dom for pulling it all together. A top-quality panel always helps me to focus my mind on the killer questions I’d really like to see addressed in a session. This post looks at the first of my burning questions:
What relevance does national party political affiliation have at the local level?
I’ll say up-front that I don’t actually know the answer with any certainty, but here’s where I’ve got to so far: do pitch in if you have more to add…
An easy answer could be: because it gives a training ground, feeder pool and substructure to the parties somewhere between grass-roots activism and Westminster (or devolved administrations). There might be a grain of truth in this, and certainly there is plenty of evidence that this happens, but I doubt it’s actually the real reason. If it were, this would certainly be of some service to established political organisations, but arguably less so to the people whom they represent.
It may just be about making local government manageable. Assume as an alternative that your council chamber is packed with perhaps 70 locally-active, vociferous individuals all representing their wards as hard as they can. You know the shy, retiring types who make very good independent candidates? Fancy trying to form committees or other organising structures out of that?
Or is it just that – irrational and irrelevant as we might find foreign policy positions when we’re more concerned about the state of the roads – we find it much easier to deal with the broad coding we get from party political labels. ‘Conservative’ translating as “taxes kept low and more provider choice, but you’ll find free stuff gets cut”; ‘Labour’ = “redistributive social policy and a stronger safety net for all”; Lib Dem = “caring, greener, maybe even more socially redistributive”? [Don’t take these thumbnails as any form of political analysis – that’s not the point of this post!] UKIP and BNP speak for themselves – but I suspect there’s nothing like the organised local machinery of the main parties – their goals don’t currently embrace actually running administrations AFAIK. (Not sure about the Greens. In some ways they already have just the sort of label that should be really effective locally…)
Or is perhaps just that without a local ballot-box to whack every year we lack a vital venting mechanism in counterpoint to the General Election polling cycle? Perhaps we keep national politics in our local backyards just to show we can exercise feedback?
Perhaps it’s even time to grow up more and review some of these arguments. Are good, capable, independently-elected People Who Care really incapable of forming useful governing structures without bold blue, red and yellow labels? Or is it true that – other than foreign policy – all political positions only really make sense where they’re actually experienced: at the local level; making it completely natural to see our local representatives in those clothes?
Should we be aiming for a new non-partisan local democracy supported by organising structures (cabinets, committees etc.) which are designed to be fit for that purpose? Find people with passion to really represent localities – with far less likelihood of being driven by the self-interest of eventual advancement to a seat in SW1?
Whichever might be true, it seems that we hardly ever hear the issue of national-politics-at-the-local-level raised, nor much from the local politicians themselves on what value it actually adds. So do please join in and tell us.
Coming next: what you could do if you really wanted to transform local government…