British politics looks set to become increasingly local, as chancellor George Osborne’s localism agenda continues to push ahead. In April, Manchester will get direct control of its £6bn health and social budget, ahead of its first ever mayoral election early next year; other cities, such as Sheffield, look set to follow suit.
Devolution – putting more power in the hands of local authorities – instinctively sounds like it should be a good idea. After all, what do politicians in London know about the needs of people in Manchester? Aren’t local politicians better placed to make decisions for local people?
A 2008 paper from the thinktank Demos bears out what has become an axiom of modern politics – that local is better. The report, “State of Trust”, points to research by pollster Ipsos Mori showing that, while 48 per cent of people trust their local MP, only 29 per cent trust MPs in general (this despite the fact that every MP is local to somewhere).
Thinking about devolution, though, made me realise something. I’m a nerd, and I follow the news closely and spend my days making sarcastic quips about politics on Twitter… and yet, I don’t think I can name my local councillors.
So what are the chances that actual, normal people who aren’t weird political obsessives know who is representing them? Surely politics must be a long way down the list of priorities for people who have families, jobs and other commitments?
And if we’re going to put more power into the hands of local councils, does it create problems for democracy and accountability if the people have no idea who is in charge? Could localism actually hurt our democracy?
Let’s start with a simple question: do people actually know anything about their councils?
Local councillors for local people
To find out, I sent a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) to see if any research had been carried out on this question. The official response was not encouraging: “The Department has not undertaken any recent surveys of the public into how familiar they are with who their local councillors are.”
Helpfully though, it did direct me to a number of increasingly ancient papers on the topic. In 2006, Sally Taylor and Bridget Williams produced a piece of qualitative research for DCLG, which was called “Perceptions of Local Government in England”, and was based on a series of focus groups. Their findings suggested that my ignorance is not unusual:
“In the main, respondents do not know the identity of their local councillor. Most take very little interest in local politics and are highly cynical about what would motivate a person to stand for election to the council.”
Interestingly, their research suggests that, even though “local = good” is almost axiomatic in politics, people view councillors with the same contempt they view politicians at Westminster
“The general view expressed was that councillors are driven by their ego and desire for local recognition rather than a will to serve the people in their local area. Some go further than this, feeling that councillors want to make some personal gains from their position.
“There is a feeling that once residents become councillors, they in some way lose their affinity with the people they are supposed to represent, becoming part of a council clique or even conspiracy.”
This ignorance is echoed in the most up-to-date quantitative research I could find. In 2002, Ipsos Mori discovered that councillors are “divorced” from the electorate. It found that 61 per cent of respondents admitted they could not name any of their local councillors (rising to 76 per cent in London), and 31 per cent didn’t even know if there was an election in that year or not.
Reaching back even further into the mists of time, in 2000, the National Centre for Social Research produced a paper for the Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions (then deputy prime minister John Prescott’s old chimera of a department, which has since been broken up). It set the bar incredibly low, and discovered that only 74 per cent of people could give the name of their actual council.
Bradford City Hall: no one knows who works here, either. Image: Linda Spashett/Wikimedia Commons.
Just over 53 per cent of survey respondents could correctly name the party that is in control of their local council. This went down to 26 per cent, when people with two-tier local government were asked about the party in control of their county council too.
The research also found that many people don’t even know what their local councils are actually responsible for. Outside of rubbish collection and libraries, research suggests people are unsure what a council actually does. Significant minorities of respondents misidentified schools and hospitals as national and local responsibility respectively.
The numbers above should come with a health warning. They are rather old (though, as far as I can tell, the most recent available), and circumstances could conceivably have changed.
Did UKIP’s local success motivate voters to pay more attention to local politics? Has Jeremy Corbyn energising of the Labour grassroots meant that people care more about who is on the local council? Could the growth of the internet and social media have led to a new age of local accountability, as communities reconnect digitally?
That said, most of this research also suggests a correlation between local political knowledge and how long someone has lived in an area. Could the explosion in private renting mean that, as people become more transient, they know even less about where they live? It’s impossible to say.
But if these numbers are even slightly indicative, they surely pose a challenge to localism. I mean, the questions polled above don’t even scrape the surface of political engagement. People weren’t asked questions on issues of policy or local politics, but simply the most basic of basic factual questions.
And to paraphrase the late philosopher Ben Parker’s advice to his nephew, Peter: if we’re about to hand council’s greater power, should we not also demand greater accountability?
The good news here is that our local ignorance may not be a complete disaster, as it turns out that we don’t know much about Westminster either. The Hansard Society’s 2015 “Audit of Political Engagement” asked the voters if they knew which party their constituency MP belonged to. In a depressing-yet-mitigating finding, 28 per cent didn’t know, and 5 per cent refused to answer. And of those 67 per cent who said they did know their MP’s party, only 74 per cent got it right.
That means that only around half of voters know the party to which their local MP belongs – roughly on par with the number of people who can name the party in control of their council.
There’s another reason these figures might not be as depressing as they look. Perhaps the introduction of elected mayors, demanded by George Osborne as the price of devolution, could give local electorates a high profile, visible figure (like London’s Boris Johnson) who they can hold to account for the successes and failures of the newly devolved services.
Perhaps, then, there’s nothing to worry about. Perhaps.
James O’Malley tweets as @psythor.
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