Local Elections this week go – do they matter?
This week sees what may well turn out to be the biggest election in British history, at least in numbers of candidates, if not in terms of voter turnout. Why? Some elections were due to be held now, like Oxfordshire County Council, others, like half of Oxford City and London Mayor, had been held over from last year because of the pandemic. Also local elections are coinciding with those to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd, Police and Crime Commissioners posts and of course there will be the Hartlepool by-election. In Oxfordshire people are voting for all 63 seats in the County Council and all 48 in Oxford City Council.
Does it matter? Absolutely!
Firstly, local elections are one of the opportunities for our EU national friends to vote. In this respect they contrast with general elections and indeed, of course, with the referendum (if only!). If UK resident EU nationals feel angry about how they have been treated by this government, and frankly they have every right to be, then this is their one chance to show it.
I would not presume to tell people how to vote. However I would make no apologies for saying that voters really should exercise their democratic right. We are not in Australia and people will not be fined for failing to vote, but this is not a good enough reason for sitting on your hands. I have come across many people who say they cannot spare the time (!), they couldn’t be bothered, or it will make no difference because politicians are all the same. Those attitudes are devoutly to be resisted. Boris Johnson and his friends would like you to believe that all politicians are equally corrupt. If voters cannot tell the difference between honest and dishonest politicians, the dishonest ones will thrive. Just remember the referendum. Proportionately more people who would have leaned towards Remain stayed at home, often because they were persuaded that the outcome was a done deal. Look what happened.
Although the elections here are local, they will certainly be seen as a straw in the wind. If the Tories do well, i.e. if they improve their holding from the last election, they will see this as evidence that blatant lying can go unpunished and that the public supports their current policies. And in these I would include taking a ‘hard line’ with our European neighbours, looking towards reducing alignment of laws and standards, imposing xenophobic immigration laws, reducing freedom of movement for British people and for the many indispensable EU nationals working in this country in the NHS and elsewhere. These are the kinds of policies which mark out the Tory government and the reasons why we, as a non-political organisation, feel it is our duty as citizens to ensure that they are held to account.
And bear in mind, of course, that even though this is a local election we have a government which is seeking to benefit in these elections from public approval of the vaccine program, which is attributable mainly to the hard work of NHS workers, marginally to decisions made in central government and not at all to any actions taken by local authorities.
At a local level, please bear in mind that Oxford County Council is currently hung but Tory controlled. It is a council which is complicit with decisions by this government to undermine the power of local authorities. My own local council, South Oxford District Council (not currently up for re-election), has been ordered by Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary, against its own judgement, to support a local plan which it had considered to be seriously harmful. The clearly stated government agenda is to take away planning responsibility from local councils, in the name of simplifying the panning process. As Oliver Wainwright puts it:
‘The proposed “planning revolution” bears all of the signs of policy advisers who don’t actually understand the complexity of the system they are so keen to destroy. It is disruptive ideology writ large, picking on an already weakened target for a hastily-devised experiment on a national scale’
Against this background a change of tenure at county level can only serve to promote local accountability. And for those who voted Tory four years ago and see no reason for a change, remember this: the party you voted for no longer exists. Just look at the news of the last few weeks.
Every vote counts. Use it well.
Ed: The author is Chair of Oxford For Europe but is writing in a personal capacity.