Nobody cares about local government – but we can make them
Four ideas to improve local authorities
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I hate to say it, but I really like my local Tory councillor.
Yes it really is only two years since my partner and I, both lefty-liberal types, reached our mid-30s/early 40s, bought a house and moved out of London to the Kent commuter belt.
I didn’t think we’d go native this quickly either1.
The problem is that our councillor lives locally, and is very good at doing councillor stuff. He’s excellent at the “getting potholes filled in” part of the job, and is active on all of the local Facebook groups, engaging with his constituents and helping them with their problems.
He’s even helped us directly. By feeding our cats when we go on holiday.
This isn’t an act of extreme electioneering on his part, it’s just another thing he does for work and we pay him money to do it. I recognised his face on a cat-sitting website when I searched for our local area, and I quickly realised that I should definitely book him over the other candidates.
My rationale was smart: Unlike the other cat-sitters in the area, he’s not a total rando who I would be letting into our house and trusting to care for Hashtag and Boudicca2. And as he’s a councillor, that’s an effective heuristic for “is he a responsible adult?” compared to the median person off the street.
Plus in the best case scenario, if he later becomes Prime Minister, I’m going to have an incredible anecdote. And in the worst case scenario, if he inexplicably were to somehow harm our beloved cats, I could dedicate my life to destroying his political career. That’s a level of accountability that a one star review on the cat-sitting app simply can’t compete with.
But here’s the awkward thing: Despite him being really good at his job, and despite having personally met him and had him help us out… I didn’t vote for him in last May’s local elections3.
This was for three reasons.
First, because despite my drift towards political moderation in my old age, I still situate my politics somewhere in the haze of the liberal-left. I just don’t think I could ever bring myself to put my cross in the Tory box.
Secondly, like basically everyone I was, of course, voting mostly on national issues, and wanted to ‘send a message’ to the current government that I think they have bad ideas and are doing a bad job.
And finally, there’s the reality that despite being someone who cares about politics more than 99% of the rest of the population, the awkward reality is that I don’t know that much about my area’s local politics.
Sure, I know which party is in control of the council, and I could probably hazard a guess at some of the most contentious local issues, but I don’t follow the happenings on my local council very closely at all. Has my councillor been speaking in debates? What have been his contributions to various policy debates locally? I’ve got no idea.
This strikes me as a problem. But luckily I don’t think I’m the only person failing here.
According to some annoyingly ancient 2005 polling by Ipsos-Mori4, 26% of people said they know “nothing at all” about the work of their local councillors, 54% said they know “not very much”, 17% said they know “a fair amount”, and 2% “a great deal”.
Then we have to factor in that a significant number of people in those latter two groups were surely lying because they wanted to sound clever when a pollster phoned them up (what I’m trying to get everyone to call the Anneliese Dodds Bullshit Coefficient).
And even if we imagine a fantasy world where since 2005 there has been an uptick in engagement with local issues, it seems unlikely to me that the numbers would be much higher5. Not least because there is no sign of an uptick in the turnout for council elections, which you might assume would increase if people were more interested.
In fact, nobody caring about local politics is pretty much something we just accept as a golden rule in British politics. And this doesn’t seem to good to me as someone who cares about achingly worthy stuff like the health of local democracy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, because there’s no law of physics that states that most people have to be disengaged from local government. It’s just a consequence of the way our politics is structured that most people care even less than they do about Westminster.
So rather than sit down and try to learn about local issues and become more engaged with my local area like a good citizen, I’ve instead been puzzling through this problem in my head.
And as a result, here are four ideas for how to actually make people care more about what happens in their local council.
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