The outcome of the general election on 7 May 2015 surprised many experts and self-appointed experts with a victory under the first-past-the-post electoral system for the Conservative Party, which gave it a majority in the House of Commons. Beyond the confines of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, the Conservative Party made significant gains in the local elections contested in many areas on the same day. Whilst I do not doubt there are many fine candidates for that party (as well as in other parties, not forgetting independent candidates too), I do wonder how many of them would have been elected had the local election been contested separately from the general election. I have no doubt that the political landscape of local government may have looked somewhat different if the election had been held today rather than on 7 May.
I am Deputy Returning Officer for my local authority area and it was quite apparent to me that the general election had captured the imagination of the electorate. Examples of the primacy of the parliamentary election in the electorate’s mind filled my inbox and those of my colleagues on a daily basis in the days and weeks of the campaign:
I’ve not received my postal vote for the general election. I’ve had my one for the council, but that’s not important …. I want to vote for the Prime Minister.
Everyone is entitled to vote for whoever they wish and for whatever reasons they may have. The lack of awareness or understanding by the electorate in respect of the level of government that impacts the most on their daily lives should be a concern for us all.
The outcome of the election for local government has focused on the financial implications of ongoing austerity during the life of the parliament. Indeed, the Local Government Chronicle and the Municipal Journal have invited Chief Executives and the brightest from local government think tanks to reflect on what this will mean. An equally important challenge for local government during this period will be to address engagement and participation in local democracy beyond how many folks vote. The challenges ahead can only be met with redesign of the approaches that councillors, local authorities and others with an interest in the way that local democracy works. It will not be sufficient to carry on in the same vein.
The general election and the Scottish Independence Referendum showed that the electorate is engaged when policies or issues that effect them are up for debate. Local government has to grasp this and take the debate out of the town hall and to the people. Where the public are not engaged, there remains a duty to make the decision-making process open and transparent and this can be extended beyond the publication of agendas, reports and minutes through effective use of technology … not even new technology!
I expect local government to look very different by the end of the current Parliament, but the sector needs to focus on taking charge of its own future and not be dictated to by Westminster.