All politics is local. That was the mantra that guided the long career of Tip O’Neill, the late Speaker of the US House of Representatives. It was meant to encapsulate the need for politicians to stay in touch with their voters and never forget that direct link to the electorate.
By Paul Waugh Chief Political Commentator inews.co.uk
In the UK, local government and local issues have long been tangled up with national government and national issues. Like parliamentary by-elections, mid-term council elections are often seen as a referendum on whoever is in power, mixing protest votes about Westminster with verdicts on a particular backyard.
The public at least appear to claim that they’re more focused on their particular area. A new poll today by Survation for the Serco Institute found that just 11 per cent of people said Westminster politics was their primary motivation for deciding who to support in local elections. Some 14 per cent said the main driver was local public services and the top answer (21 per cent) was “local issues”.
In a clear bid to distance themselves from Boris Johnson, Partygate and the cost of living crisis, several Tory council candidates today are formally standing as “local Conservatives”. Registering that party name was a wheeze dreamed up by the party HQ in early 2019 at the height of Theresa May’s unpopularity. It didn’t particularly halt her demise.
But an emphasis on the local does matter to Boris Johnson’s chances of success nationally. Three of his key messages at the last election – “taking back control” after Brexit, “levelling up” and reforming social care – all rely on delivering both cash and power to local areas. The problem is that on both money and local decision-making, there is a long, long way to go.
As ever, Johnson’s emphasis has been on presenting his government as a new government, not a continuation of Tory rule since 2010. Rishi Sunak’s spending review last year did indeed deliver the largest increase in council spending power for more than a decade.
Yet as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out, the UK’s population growth means that an apparent 2.4 per cent increase in real terms spending power since 2015/6 is actually a 1.8 per cent fall when calculated per person. Since 2010, council spending per person has plunged by a massive 25 per cent.
Most of the cuts of George Osborne’s austerity years were conducted by stealth, precisely because they were done locally by piecemeal. A slow puncture gets much less attention than a sudden blowout, especially with fewer local newspapers to report the damage. Planning, economic development, leisure services, libraries, all saw sweeping cuts.
When Boris Johnson did his whirlwind tour of local radio stations this week, those cuts were raised repeatedly. On BBC Radio Solent, he was told “we can’t look for money down the back of the sofa anymore because we sold the sofa”. On BBC Radio Wiltshire, he was told the local Swindon council had seen real cuts in cash from his government. “That’s all the more reason to have councillors who spend money wisely,” was the PM’s reply.
Just before Johnson went on air, the radio station played the Queen song “I Want To Break Free”. That felt like a subliminal message for those who argue that the best way the PM could really deliver change in a post-Brexit Britain is to free councils from Whitehall’s control.
When he was London Mayor, Johnson was an arch devolutionist, arguing for more cash and powers from George Osborne. He floated the idea of new council tax bands and for the capital to set its own tourist tax, income tax and stamp duty land tax. It was a metropolitan declaration of independence: taxation and representation go hand in hand.
Although councils are judged on the council taxes they set, their funding is really at the mercy of the Chancellor. The less cash they get from central government, the more town halls have to rely on council taxes. In 2010, council tax made up 45 per cent of core spending, but by 2020 it made up 60 per cent. And unlike the Treasury, local councils have a legal duty to set a balanced budget.
There has at least been some progress under Johnson and Sunak for those areas that get less from council tax because they are more deprived. The most deprived tenth of councils are projected to see their core spending power rise by 8.4 per cent, compared to 6.9 per cent for the least deprived tenth of councils.
And council tax has also been used as a backdoor vehicle for the Government to raise money for social care. However, councils are here under the squeeze too. In one of Sunak’s least noticed stealth cuts in last year’s Budget, he cut from three per cent to one per cent the amount a council could increase council tax by in order to fund social care. The prospect of people already hit by Sunak’s National Insurance rise then getting even more taxes locally may have been a factor.
Many poorer towns in England voted for Johnson and for Brexit alike, often because they had seen years of neglect and out of a sense that local pride needed to be restored. Yet some of those same areas are complaining that on things like structural funds, they’re getting less money than they did under the EU (the Cornish Times’ headline last month was ‘”Give Us Our Money, Boris”).
Those “Red Wall” areas are also losing out because of the continued drive towards creating pots of money for which all councils then have to compete against each other. The “Levelling Up Fund”, “Towns Fund”, “Community Ownership Fund”, even the “Bus Back Better” scheme, are all forms of beauty parade with winners and losers.
Instead of giving councils the money they need on a sustainable basis, and allowing them autonomy over how to spend it, we have a system that turns town halls into the equivalent of cities or countries bidding to host the Olympics or the World Cup. And the losers notice. In PMQs recently Neil Hudson, the MP for Penrith and the Borders, told Johnson of “my disappointment… when Cumbria was allocated no funding from the latest tranche of bus funding”. That MP is a Conservative.
Local successes have fired a Tory revival in the north and midlands too. Many “Red Wall” MPs tell me part of the reason for their success in 2019 wasn’t just the PM’s campaigning magic, it was often local resentment at a dire Labour council that had been in power for a decades.
Don’t forget that last year, many voters in the Hartlepool by-election blamed that council for closing their local hospital, whereas Tory Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen was credited with bringing jobs to the area. Similarly, Labour’s failure to tackle potholes and crime in Batley came close to costing Kim Leadbeater the seat. This year, Sunderland, Hull and Croydon are all causing jitters among Keir Starmer supporters.
Raw party politics aside, there is also a sound philosophical reason for Conservatives to back more localism. Their central belief is that politicians need to trust the people more (with how they spend their own money, with how they run their businesses). The flipside of distrust in a remote, centralised state may logically be trust in local people to determine their own fate.
On levelling up, on letting local people “take back control”, and on social care, Johnson really could get his government back on track if he gave more money and powers to local authorities. Without either, the title “local Conservatives” may look like a contradiction in terms.
Today’s local elections may well repeat the pattern of previous polling days for years, delivering a bloody nose to a national government, only for that government to win the following general election. It happened under Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, after all.
Still, some Conservatives think Johnson is missing a trick in not devolving more power locally. If he doesn’t, maybe local Tories will agree with today’s verdict from Nick Boles, an ex-Tory minister and the PM’s former chief of staff in his early days at City Hall: “He does not care about anything, other than power and glory for himself.”