Saturday, May 4, 2013

Ukippered: What do these Elections Mean for Local Government?

Yesterday was my last day as a County Councillor. I was replaced by a Conservative who beat a former Tory Independent by a whisker with  UKIP also hot in pursuit.  

But what do these elections tell us about the state of local government?  

It is clear that the success of so many 'paper candidates' from UKIP that local issues still do not have much traction in local government elections.

'State of the nation' is the way they tend to be treated by voters and pundits alike.

Twas ever thus, you may say.   But will it always be so?  Three factors suggest otherwise.

Firstly, local government is about to hit some very difficult years.   It's going to be like the family on the breadline that gets a huge electric bill at just the same time as Mum loses her part time job.   

Such are the pressures on social care and central government cuts that something big will have to give.   

As the New Local Government Network stated in their new report this week, watch what happens to leisure centres, parks, theatres - all things Councils like to do - but are not compelled to do in law.

The second factor that may bode change is that local government is gradually developing its own income base.

Less and less of its money is coming from the centre and, over time, Councils will be more and more free to do their own thing.   

Local government will, as time goes on, look less and less like simply an executive arm of the centre.   

This will make the choice of who runs the council look like a more important decision, as it is in most other advanced democracies.

Thirdly, although I don't think UKIP have any real solutions, the presence of UKIP will wake up the parties at local government level who have, for many years, been asleep at the wheel.  

In many areas, the complacency of Councillors has led to a situation ripe for the far-right (and remember this is what UKIP, in effect, are) to come in with a powerful message for any established politicians.   

If this doesn't ginger up the local political scene in many towns and lead to more engagement with the populace, I will be very surprised.

So, the election of UKIP isn't all bad news. I look forward to seeing them trying to grapple with the financial challenges of Councils and the day to day reality of making neighbourhoods better places to live.

I suspect this will take a bit of the edge of their current self-belief.   Running things isn't easy.

On a personal level it was a relief, having stepped down before the election, to see my seat taken by a sensible, capable young woman with a great track record in the community and in business rather than the near-alternatives.   

Democracy is still, however stagnant it has become in the UK, a wonderful thing.   We can still get the buggers out here and the will of the people still counts for something.  

We must never take this for granted.