AS I SEE IT: ‘Sending a message to Boris’ has no place in local elections, says TERRY MURDEN
Amid the deluge of campaign material for the local elections comes an email from the SNP as the party embarks on a 21-day battle bus tour of Scotland, including nine council areas. However, voters worrying about the state of the pavements, late running bus services or hold-ups in the planning department may be left disappointed.
Ahead of the bus setting off on its cross-country journey, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a statement declaring: “We need to come together as a country and send a message that the callous indifference on rising energy and food bills from Westminster will not be tolerated – and that it is untenable to have law-breakers occupying 10 and 11 Downing Street.”
Indeed, the whole statement was focused on the miscreants in Westminster, their fines for partying during lockdown and failure to reduce the cost of living. This on top of other recent campaign complaints about national insurance and universal credit.
That’s fine if you’re campaigning to send MPs to the House of Commons, but this is a town hall election. It’s about those issues that affect our day-to-day lives and there was nothing in the SNP missive that mentioned repairing potholed roads or tackling overflowing waste bins.
For too long local elections have been usurped by national power brokers using them as a referendum on Westminster politics. Aided by the media and political analysts, the local elections have become a sideshow to the bigger picture. “The tour will focus the SNP campaign on sending Boris Johnson a message on May 5,” is the SNP’s unequivocal message.
It is not alone.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, Scottish leader of those self-proclaimed bastions of local democracy the Liberal Democrats, uses a campaign message to have a go at the Prime Minister and Chancellor for partying in Downing Street.
Scottish Labour launched its campaign manifesto in Glasgow by focusing on issues affecting the city, though party leader Anas Sarwar could not resist responding to the fines issued to the Prime Minister and Chancellor by saying voters “should take out their anger with Boris Johnson’s Tories on the 5 May – at the ballot box.”
The Tories are going heavily local, though this will be influenced by a desire to switch attention away from Downing Street scandals, energy prices and other national concerns.
The real issues in our communities – late running bus services, delays in the planning department to approve an upstairs bathroom – appear to be playing, at best, second fiddle.
The reasons our local elections have lost their “local” relevance are threefold. First, the erosion in local government budgets and independent control. Secondly, the long-standing infiltration of town halls by party politics and, thirdly, the rise of career politicians who regard winning a council seat as a stepping stone to becoming an MSP, an MP and even a minister.
Party politics has a questionable role in local government affairs. What relevance on town hall politics is a party’s position on the union? On sending weapons to Ukraine? Or its views on corporation tax?
To be fair, the parties have listed waste collection and transport as key concerns, but there is nothing “nationalist” or “unionist” about extending the tram or emptying the bins.
The role of local councils is to ensure there are enough shovels for the maintenance department to mend the roads, that the fire engine sirens are working, that there are enough teachers in the schools, that public buildings are repaired and cleaned. These are not political decisions. They are basic services that any responsible authority needs to uphold, just as a company would ensure its various services are properly financed and supplied.
If all councillors stood on an independent ticket it would help refocus the local elections on local issues. That is an unlikely outcome any time soon. So in the meantime our politicians need to give their local candidates an opportunity to let their voices be heard and stop the town hall elections being turned into an opinion poll on national issues.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business