Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
We are just eight months away from the next local elections, scheduled for 6th May, 2021, including County and district councils, 13 directly elected mayors, and 40 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) – deferred from 2020.
For obvious reasons, as campaigning starts, activists cannot knock on doors, but conversations with voters in front gardens and on the street, with friends in socially distanced pubs, indicate some sympathy for the Government having to deal with the Covid crisis. However, frustration is growing over the Prime Minister’s absence, a perceived lack of leadership, and confused messaging.
As Brexit deadlines approach, interest in the outcome is also growing, with most feeling the challenges are self-inflicted. The Government should not have signed the agreement taking us out of the EU in January if it had reservations about its future implementation.
So, which national, not local, issues will determine the outcome next year? There are two groups of first time voters, who may set the tone and tip the balance.
Firstly, EU citizens living in England who are permitted to vote in local elections from 2021. They are important contributors to our economy, and services, often doing unpopular jobs in agriculture, the NHS, care, factories and hospitality.
Inevitably ‘testy’, successful Brexit negotiations are critical to our economic future at this most difficult of times. The Conservatives will pay a heavy price at the ballot box for failing to salvage a healthy working relationship with the EU: new tariffs, customs checks and reams of additional paperwork delaying imports and exports, or threatening trade agreements with other countries, including the US, would penalise our economic recovery. Lorry parks are already in place around Kent, where illegal immigration across the Channel is having a major impact on coastal towns; detention camps are now being established in former Army bases.
Secondly, thousands of teenagers, whose lives and career ambitions were turned upside down following the exams debacle, will also be eligible to vote for the first time.Their equally frustrated parents will ensure they are registered – and actually vote. If schools close again, there will inevitably be calls for next year’s exams to be deferred, causing yet more chaos, adding to parental and students’ anger.
However, it is the reaction to Covid which is likely to have the most significant impact on voting intentions. Westminster seems unaware that many lifelong Conservatives – let alone ‘borrowed’ voters – are dismayed by Government indecision. It doesn’t help that some Ministers over-promise and under-deliver, with Test & Trace failing to meet its targets whilst the number of cases escalate, and now the 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, adding yet more pressure to the economy, increasing unemployment.
Protecting the elderly and vulnerable, and those who look after them in care homes, is another key issue for families – and local authorities. The Chancellor’s latest injection of over half a billion funding to support the sector is welcome, especially when reports indicate that hospitals may eject elderly patients into care homes – again – if more beds are needed for Covid patients in the coming months. Wouldn’t a better solution be to set up convalescent wards for them? Or utilise the temporary Nightingale hospitals?
With billions of pounds poured into the Covid crisis, and public borrowing at unprecedented levels, ensuring that taxpayers’ billions provide value for money is crucial, and those organisations which have returned Government funding should be commended, but the National Audit Office is investigating fraud in relation to the furlough scheme. It is reportedly also addressing how multi-million pound Covid-related contracts are awarded, not always in compliance with the usual competitive tender process designed to ensure standards as well as capability.
Another voter concern is Westminster’s current cronyism in public appointments, when some appointees don’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience to take on important high profile roles paying huge salaries. There is a need to ensure a more open – independently monitored – process, attracting a broader network of appropriately qualified individuals who can be held to account and be seen to deliver on their brief.
Despite Covid pressures, it is also critical that Government doesn’t ignore the two major public inquiries, examining the Manchester Arena bombings and Grenfell fire, currently under way; initial revelations have already identified a number of significant questions for the public sector, which will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.
In particular, Grenfell was a disaster in a Conservative-run council area but there are repercussions across the country for 186,000 flats in high rise blocks, whose owners face massive bills for replacing cladding, and other protective measures. They purchased their flats in good faith, and should not be held responsible for the lack of Building Control and developers’ shoddy construction, now destroying their finances, leaving them unable to sell and move on with their lives. Re-cladding is estimated to cost around £6 billion; so far the Government has committed just £1 billion, excluding Scotland and Wales.
In the meantime, Covid continues to bring further challenges. To the fury and confusion of many, both in Parliament and beyond the M25, the Government appears to think it has the right to dictate, hectoring and threatening, instead of empathising and showing respect. It doesn’t help to cause panic amongst people, who should be allowed to use their common sense, based on facts, not whims. The current lack of strategy – and an endgame – undermines trust, and £10,000 fines (which are unlikely to be paid) are not the solution if people fail to self-isolate; no action was taken when a Government advisor allegedly travelled hundreds of miles whilst infected, damaging public confidence.
In the confusion, it is easy to forget that the UK is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Thankfully, the 1922 Committee is on the case, rightly demanding Parliamentary oversight of emergency legislation. This is crucial as, according to the latest scientific advice, we can expect at least a further six months in some form of ‘quarantine’.
Government must improve its communication, avoiding bluster with ‘world beating’, ‘moonshot’ and ‘oven ready’ phrases, which may win a media headline but only patronise the public. It should also work to co-ordinate policies, to simplify understanding and compliance across all UK nations.
It is time to be constructive about the future – or pay the price. The electorate can be unforgiving, so next year’s local elections will set the tone for the rest of this Government’s term in office.