Let's breathe some life into our local councils before the monkeys take over

As local government matters less, so do local elections. This week turnout is expected to be at an all-time low
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The Independent Online

Here's a paradox. Next Friday, the local election results will be a big story, almost certainly the biggest political story of the week. If the BNP edges into seats in Burnley and Oldham, there will be some painful soul-searching about what is happening in this country that is so bad that a fascist party can break through, even on a mercifully limited scale. If, as expected, the former cop Ray Mallon is elected mayor of Middlesbrough on an independent ticket, many yards of newsprint will be devoted to the proposition that he has exposed a huge new lack of connectivity in the British party system. And Labour's probable losses and Tory gains will be relentlessly used to measure both the Government's underlying popularity or lack of it, and the success or otherwise of Iain Duncan Smith's appeal to the electorate at the time of its first real test.

Here's a paradox. Next Friday, the local election results will be a big story, almost certainly the biggest political story of the week. If the BNP edges into seats in Burnley and Oldham, there will be some painful soul-searching about what is happening in this country that is so bad that a fascist party can break through, even on a mercifully limited scale. If, as expected, the former cop Ray Mallon is elected mayor of Middlesbrough on an independent ticket, many yards of newsprint will be devoted to the proposition that he has exposed a huge new lack of connectivity in the British party system. And Labour's probable losses and Tory gains will be relentlessly used to measure both the Government's underlying popularity or lack of it, and the success or otherwise of Iain Duncan Smith's appeal to the electorate at the time of its first real test.

And yet two days before the polling stations open, they seem like a non-event. Maybe appearances lie, but it looks very much as if the main actors in the drama, the English electorate, could scarcely be less interested. In Hartlepool, on the north-east coast, a man dressed as a monkey is standing for the mayoralty. In London, where there are elections in 32 boroughs, it's a safe bet that a large majority of voters – larger than ever – have not the slightest idea who their council leader is and only the faintest idea of what the council's powers are.

Turnout is expected to be at an all-time low : perhaps one in four, surely provoking – again rightly – another spate of agonising about the now chronic problem of political apathy. There will be calls for supermarket voting, internet voting, weekend voting, postal voting, compulsory voting and no doubt other palliatives designed to deal with the fact that three-quarters of the electorate couldn't give a damn. And somebody will calculate to the nearest decimal point how many more people voted in Pop Idol than in the election of the local dignitaries who run their education, police, fire and leisure services.

A great many of these post-mortems will be amply justified. And a good deal of it is our fault. It is indeed a collective scandal that we take our historic freedoms so much for granted that we don't even bother to exercise them. Equally, however, the deep alienation – it's a better word than apathy – from conventional democratic politics, local and national, as currently practised, is fully worthy of the attention it has rather belatedly begun to get. It will certainly be worth talking about after Thursday's local elections. It may even be the only thing worth talking about.

That said, there are still specific factors which turn voters off in local elections. And at least some of that has to do with the relationship between national and local government itself. As local government matters less, so do local elections. And as local elections matter less, so does the electorate's sense that they have any say between the limited choices they are given every four or five years.

One of the prices paid for the poll tax (the most expensive mistake of the Thatcher years) was the huge switch from local to national government expenditure, mainly in the form of increased VAT, engineered by Norman Lamont as the Major government scrambled to repair the damage. It's also true that all three of the last administrations, two Tory and one Labour, have grappled with a failing education system by taking it increasingly out of the hands of local authorities.

And finally, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, understandably haunted by the memory of what left-wing Labour local authorities did to the party's image in the 1980s, have been extremely wary of restoring many of their powers. But in a fine essay in what is still the best academic study of the first Blair term, The Blair Effect, the LSE's Professor Tony Travers pointed out that the structural importance of local government has been declining since the 1940s, when many of the principal utilities, health and water among them, were nationalised. Either way, the historic process now means, as Professor Travers is fond of saying, that only 3 per cent of all taxes are raised locally and about 97 per cent by the central exchequer. In the 19th century, the great era of British municipalism, it was the other way round.

Nor is this easy to reverse. Even the most ardent localist has to confront this dilemma: people may want their services locally run, but they also don't think it's fair that their child should be going to a lousy school just because it's on one side of an arbitrary line, while a good school is on the other. In other words, they want local and national control at the same time.

To be fair, Tony Blair, partly by struggling to introduce mayors, cabinets and other forms of council modernisation – tried to reconcile his own cautious centralism with his instinct for reform and to coax councils into a better performance that could then be rewarded with (some) more local power, including the raising of taxation. Both he and Hilary Armstrong, the local government minister for much of the first term, encountered stiff resistance to change, including from John Prescott.

What's becoming increasingly clear is that such efforts are not enough. Easily the most dramatic of the government's constitutional reforms has been the handover of real, tangible power to the Scottish Parliament – and to a very minor extent the Welsh assembly. In England, nothing has happened at all. Those who worry most about this are inclined to favour regional English assemblies, ignoring the very institutions that are staring them in the face, and were the political motors of regionalism in the 19th century, the local authorities.

But they can only start to matter again if they have more power to take political risks and raise some of their own money. Which may also mean unravelling some now patently crazy finance rules for local government – which not only maintains expenditure caps in all but name, but also allows hugely valuable properties in London, for example, to be locally taxed at a level that is ludicrously trifling by any international standards.

Of course there are risks, though rotating elections and the sea change in the Labour Party should make them much more bankable. But an ICM poll published yesterday by a new Tory-ish think-tank, the Policy Exchange, shows that 65 per cent of electors would prefer much more local control of services even if it led to a deterioration of services in some areas.

And there's another thing. One of the biggest problems national politicians currently struggle with is the deep scepticism about whether they can make a difference to everything they touch. Allowing more local autonomy would ease some of the huge, perhaps unbearable, burden on them to prove the public wrong. Local government can indeed be modernised – not least by mayors, But it should be enhanced rather than replaced. This week, Tony Blair celebrates five years in office. It's time to let go. Otherwise, sooner or later, the men in monkey suits will be all that is left in the country's town halls.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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