Writes Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers’ Alliance in his Sunday column.
By the nature of their jobs, commentators and players on the political stage pay a huge amount of attention to national political goings on. This is only natural – after all, Parliament is the seat of our democracy, the Prime Minister holds the most exalted position in the land and national politics does, inevitably, affect us all. It would be wrong and politically foolish, though, to ignore the importance of local issues in any campaign.
It may seem obvious, but the services which take place literally on our doorsteps, are provided by local government. For most adults, council services like bin collections, libraries, road repairs, street lighting and so on are their most regular interaction with the State. Similarly, the council tax bill is one of the largest monthly outgoings for any household, placing severe burdens on most families‘ budgets.
Bin collections and council tax bills may seem mundane when compared to Budget Speeches, PMQs and the Queen’s Speech but when they go wrong they can have just as direct an impact on people’s lives; often even more direct an impact, in fact.
For that reason, politicians neglect local issues at their peril. The sheer strength of feeling and depth of understanding people have about the quality of their local authorities is clear to anyone who knocks on doors or mans a political stall at a local market. Right across the country these issues resonate very deeply with people, and the public are extremely good at picking up relevant facts about the quality and cost of the service they get from their council.
Only yesterday I was out with several TaxPayers’ Alliance activists in
North Tyneside, collecting signatures for a petition demanding a
reduction in local council tax bills in 2009. Almost everyone we
stopped was willing to lend us their support, and we gathered over 350
signatures in the space of a couple of hours.
Encouragingly for tax cutters, this public support does not spring
simply from some kind of blinkered greed, as supporters of high taxes
often try to imply. Tellingly, the vast majority of people signing the
petition knew the pay level of the council Chief Executive, the fact
that the council spends £25,000 a year on bottled water, the cost of
the new Town Hall or other pieces of information about the way their
money is mis-spent. The public are very well-informed about the
realities of local government waste and mismanagement. If they
disengage from political involvement, it is often because they are
disillusioned about the chances of any of the political parties doing
anything to improve things.
Fundamentally, the low tax debate is not just one of high economics or
political philosophy, it is of great concern to ordinary people right
across the country. A good council has the potential to improve the
local community, make life easier for people and reduce the financial
burdens on struggling families and businesses. A bad council has great
potential to do harm in all those areas and more.
Whilst the great affairs of State are, of course, crucially important,
politicians would do well to remember that people also care about their
household bills and their local services. Every time TPA activists go
out to spread the low tax message and gather support for low tax
petitions, the groundswell of support for lower taxes, awareness of
local council failings and anger at wasteful spending is strong and
articulate. Listening to those concerns and acting on them offers
politicians not only an opportunity to serve the people, but judging by
the reaction we get on the streets, there are a lot of votes in it, too.