When British politics is all consumed by Brexit, and European elections are around the corner, moving bin collections from weekly to fortnightly is hardly going to dominate national news. But this week’s local elections really do matter and local government is struggling. Since 2010 there have been severe cuts to local council budgets and people at the sharp end are really feeling it. Children’s services, adult social care, libraries, road maintenance, and – yes of course – the bin collections, are all in a pretty shoddy state. Council tax and business rates are rising and yet people see no real improvement in what they’re getting – the money is just plugging the gaps in essential services. Surely, the Government should take a pasting and the Opposition should be riding high? Well, a combination of Brexit, Corbyn and more prosaic local issues are saving and causing blushes in equal measure.
For those who have campaigned on the doorstep, the response from voters has been angry to say the least. There are innumerable anecdotes from the doorstep of party footsoldiers trying to talk about local issues, but instead receiving a barrage of criticism for their party’s opposition to/support for/inability to deliver (delete as appropriate) Brexit. Voters want politicians to “get on with it” and get on with governing. In fairness to your local councillors, they are getting on with it (your bins) and they can’t do all that much about international treaties. Undoubtedly the Tories are suffering most on this front, being on a net loss of over 500 councillors and 22 councils.
For Labour, the story is similar. With the sorry state of the Government, typically an Opposition would be running away with the local elections. Well, as it stands, Labour itself has suffered the loss of five councils and more than 70 seats, even from its low benchmark of the 2015 elections. This can be interpreted as a reflection of the party’s failure to pick a position on Brexit, now being seen by Brexiteers to be a party of Remain, and by Remainers as a party of Brexit. Those doing well are the Liberal Democrats, who have so far taken over 300 councillors and eight councils, and Greens and independents, who are seeing successes all across the country.
Despite predictions of dire turnout, early results suggest that it’s only down a couple of points. But there has been a remarkable lack of turnout in another sense, in party activism. Morale in both the main parties is lower than it has been for a long time and will be made worse by the bedrock of that activism, local councillors, being booted out of jobs. Labour MP Anna Turley put it rather well on twitter this morning: “Stand in the middle of the road and you get run over in both directions”.