The value of local government has really been proved during this pandemic. From supporting those who are shielding, keeping essential services going, helping businesses survive, making town centres safer to planning for the future rebuild, it is councils up and down the land that are doing the work. It is noticeable around the world that in countries with strong public health and local government input, there seems to have been a much better response and far greater control of Covid than in countries that are highly centralised.
I am the leader of the Labour and Co-operative group in West Oxfordshire, which includes David Cameron’s constituency. We have a very effective Labour group on the Conservative district council, providing significant input as an opposition group. During Covid-19, some differences between the parties have melted away, and it has been individual councillors and group leaders who have been making important contributions to how the council responds. And our officers have been nothing short of magnificent in making things work locally.
This has, however, come at a financial cost. Councils are struggling with extra duties and responsibilities without the resources to compensate. Councils are also sidelined in decisions despite knowing best. Many councillors were not happy, for example, that the unanimous call by Oxfordshire councils for a circuit breaker in October was vetoed by local Tory MPs who had to backtrack only two weeks – of crucial lost time – later.
Local government faces challenges from Westminster not only in terms of finance but also legitimacy. The recent Conservative government’s white paper on local government reorganisation in England is yet another sign of their top-down approach. This has caused many of us to reflect on the role and legitimacy of local government, including the way that we elect people locally. Even if councils were to be properly funded and constituted, it will not be enough until we are properly elected – and reflect the communities we represent. Only this package of reform, constitutional and electoral, will give councils the legitimacy and sovereignty people want us to have.
First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a pretty punishing system in large parts of the country because it excludes that very strong, cogent and effective Labour voice from being heard in local government. Unitary shires and regional mayors could mean permanent blue control of much of England. In London, Scotland and Wales there is a different story. All experience a form of proportional representation (PR) in devolved government.
At the Labour virtual conference Connected this year, for the first time, at a meeting on local government reform organised by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, delegates heard first-hand from Labour representatives about their experience of PR. All pointed to ways in which it could be refined, but also shared stories about its effectiveness in building consensus around active and progressive governance, and building legitimacy in the eyes of those they represent.
Diversity and inclusion are now known to be core to decision-making in effective organisations. Why, then, do we allow our electoral system to favour one-party hegemony with massive over-representation of one demographic group? In the Local Government Association 2018 census, councillors were 96% white, 63% male, 45% retired. FPTP bakes in pale, male, stale and Conservative representation. Under any form of PR, we can break that mould.
Despite being in its infancy, various forms of PR are starting to make change happen in London, Scotland and Wales. The average age of councillors in Scotland is falling, elected as they are by a single transferable vote (STV) system, almost a decade younger on average than in England. In Wales, 47% of members of the Senedd are women. PR promotes diversity. Half of Labour’s diverse group of London Assembly members are women.
Local government can build greater resilience through democratic legitimacy in the face of overbearing Whitehall and Westminster power grabs if had we some form of proportionality in electing our representatives. Without it, we have the obscene situation of a virtual lock on power by Conservatives across large swathes of England based on a minority of local votes, which serves to reduce participation in local elections, damage the reputation of local democracy and reduce the effectiveness and the conduct of government – both national and local.
At its worst, it serves to silence Labour voices and stifle debate and consent. It lets Westminster ride roughshod over local views, when it is very often local people who know best what is needed in their area, and local councils that can deliver that most effectively. I would like to invite everyone, and importantly councillors, to join the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. We are creating a local government network within LCER to discuss what works best and to campaign for change.
Duncan Enright, LCER Executive
This article originally published in LabourList, 26 November 2020