The local elections are key to understanding how the country is to tackle the growing social care crisis

If the nation is unlucky each of the major parties, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru, will once again avoid the hard choices and pretend that this greatest of crises can somehow be pretended away

Wednesday 03 May 2017 18:50 BST
Councils are preparing for local elections taking place in England, Scotland and Wales on 4 May
Councils are preparing for local elections taking place in England, Scotland and Wales on 4 May (PA)

As much of Britain goes to the polls to vote in new councillors and metro mayors, the results will give all the political parties much to reflect upon. In places such as Liverpool City Region or Cambridgeshire and Peterborough there are clear favourites to win the elections, and the outcome is unlikely to have anyone falling off their chair in shock. In other locales the outcome is much more evenly balanced, and will be correspondingly more closely scrutinised – nowhere more so than the West Midlands region, where the contest has been unusually close and hard fought, even for such a politically important battleground.

For seats in Birmingham, Coventry, the Black Country and Warwickshire have traditionally been the places where British general elections are won and lost. In 2017 that is certainly no less true, and the performance of Labour’s Sion Simon and the Conservatives’ Andy Street will attract intense interest. Either way there will be such a whirlwind of spin swirling around the voting figures that the truth may be difficult to discern.

There will also be an exceptional level of attention, and spin, on all four major parties’ performance in Scotland. For Labour there seems to have been general decline in its fortunes that some slippage from the last time there were comparable elections, in 2013 – before the referendum on independence and the 2015 general election when the SNP virtually annihilated Labour at Westminster. The real question will be gauging the extent of that loss and detecting if there are any signs of recovery in Scotland by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

So millions of votes will be cast, and, in national terms for Ukip and the Liberal Democrats there will also be anxious moments in town halls as they wait to see how things are shaping up for them in the much changed political landscape since the referendum vote last June.

Yet these contests are much more than a sort of curtain raiser or elaborate opinion poll for the general election. For one thing, the voters have become sufficiently sophisticated to cast a different vote at different levels of elections. Thus, other things being equal, the Liberal Democrats traditionally tended to do better in local elections than in other rounds, and Ukip rather better, ironically enough, in PR elections to the European Parliament (the next round of those is due in 2019…). If that holds true once more it could turn out to be a very happy evening for Tim Farron, and a disturbing one for Paul Nuttall – yet in both cases their parties respective strength and weakness would be exaggerated because of those relative strengths and weakness in local contests.

The men and women elected to run local and city regional administrations will do so against a backdrop of unprecedented austerity and increasing pressure on local services. So often a thankless task, local government is being made more so by a decade-long withdrawal of central government funding in areas such as social care, that is just at a time when an ageing population is placing greater strain on resources. No wonder so many leisure centres, libraries and social work departments have faced cuts and closure. The squeeze is not over. Whoever wins the general election will be unable to restore the cuts made since the late 2000s under all three main national parties, and resources will remain tightly limited. While local councillors or mayors take the blame for the failure of local services to cope, they have only limited scope to increase their revenues, not least because so much of their funding comes straight from HM Treasury, or, rather, did.

What to do then, about the social care crisis? In terms of the broad strategy this is for Westminster to take a lead, and successive parties have, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “ducked” the problem, postponing decision after decision and, utterly unfairly, leaving local administrations to muddle through and take the flak. It is not as if the solutions – or at least the best worst answers – are not readily available and already legislated for. The outcome of the Dilnot Review almost a decade ago cast a fair balance between the need for individuals and families to support loved ones in distress, and the duty of the state to look after the weakest in society. It also sought to remove the terrible iniquity whereby someone who happens to die of a long illness is almost guaranteed to lose all their wealth, whereas those who are taken rapidly face no penalty on a lifetime of hard work and saving. The very rich, of course, usually find ways to preserve their wealth, even though even the smartest tax lawyer is yet to find a way whereby the wealthy can “take it with them”.

The Conservatives latest idea, to create a “voucher” system for social care was ridiculed, rightly, by Sir Andrew Dilnot, the nation's foremost expert in the field, because it fails to address the fundamental issue about how to share the uncertain risks of ill health in later life. As with the NHS, social care is best dealt with through social insurance, whereby all in society contribute to the cost, with the emphasis placed on a greater contribution from groups and individuals who are both better off and in a position to shoulder the burden, and from those, that is older citizens, who will benefit most from the policy.

If the nation is unlucky each of the major parties, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru, will once again avoid the hard choices and pretend that this greatest of crises can be fixed by vouchers, or reshuffling the NHS budget, or just unsustainable and undeliverable promises of public spending to support unlimited care demands. They will, in other words, seek to pretend the crisis away. In fact, social care demands cross-party consensus, long-term thinking and immediate action; this general election campaign is not going to deliver that.

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