Most of the election campaign messages from political parties are about why you should vote for one party rather than another. But the greater challenge, in local elections, is for each party to persuade its supporters to vote at all. If over a third of the electorate can be persuaded to take part; that is considered a pretty creditable outcome. If voters suspect they will notice little difference between a Labour or a Conservative Council they may decide not to bother. Fear of coronavirus is likely to further dampen turnout this time – although postal voting was being encouraged.
It should be conceded that the issues being fought over vary from one area to another and that the philosophical divide between the parties may not always manifest itself in the most tangible of ways. There is a familiar state during an argument with socialists where the retort is made: “Ah, but that is not true socialism.” This can be the response to the failings of any socialist country (Marxist or social democrat) or a past Labour Government. Or indeed a Labour Council. By contrast, some of us have had cause to lament that certain councils – where a majority of the councillors are Conservative Party members – are merely nominally Conservative. That they do not apply Conservative principles to the way they operate. Perhaps because the bureuacrats – or “officers” as they are more politely called – are left to make decisions.
George Orwell describes in some detail a pub called The Moon Under Water. It did not exist but was his “ideal” of what a pub would be. I could describe an ideal Conservative Council. Council Tax and Business Rates are low. Debt has been eliminated by the sale of surplus municipal property – which has been used for new homes. Services are provided efficiently, making use of private contractors – but with procurement policies that give smaller firms the chance to compete. Rules and regulations on the local populace are kept to a minumum – but those that are in place are enforced. Dustbins are emptied weekly and the streets kept clean. Potholes are filled and humps flattened. Social workers lift barriers to adoption for children in care. Planning officials have a particular penchant for neo-classical architecture as part of their vision to enhance beauty. Civic pride, patriotism, and volunteering are celebrated while political correctness and jargon have disappeared. Environmental improvements are about planting trees and prosecuting flytippers rather than passing declarations of a climate change emergency. We could all think of items to add to the list.
In reality, no such ideal council exists. Central Government restrictions, financial constraints, and human fallibility act as constraints on the impact of our locally elected representatives – even if they happen to be Conservative. Electing such figures is not a guarantee that Conservative values will prevail. Bureaucratic remoteness and and public sector inefficiency do not disappear. Yet it is also unreasonable to claim that voting is irrelevant to the outcome.
Here are some facts:
- Conservative councils charge lower levels of Council Tax. Averaged across council tiers, Conservative-run councils in 2020-21 in England charged £83 a year less than Labour-controlled councils on Band D and £130 a year less than Liberal Democrat-controlled councils.
- Conservative councils fix potholes more quickly than Labour councils. On average, Labour councils that responded to a recent survey revealed they took an average of 28 days to repair potholes reported to them. In Conservative council areas, it took six days less on average.
- Over half of the English Councils with the best recycling rates are Conservative-run. In 2019-20, of the 20 councils with the best recycling rates, 11 were Conservative and a further six are either run by independents or have no overall control. None were run by the Labour Party.
So often it is the poorest who suffer the most from Labour councils. Councul Tax rises hurts the low paid the most. It is the poor who are most likely to be victims of crime – often in soulless council estates which are badly designed, badly maintained, and where little is done about “problem” households. Huge sums are spent by municipal housing departments on repairs and supposed improvements yet often the results are dire. In London we can see Croydon and Lambeth as particular offenders – but the pattern applies in the rest of the country. In towns and cities where Labour have been in power for decades, the hostility to enterprise has a cumulative impact on deprivation. Wealth creators get the message that they are unwelcome and find more hospitable locations elsewhere.
Conservative councillors often make mistakes. The failure to assert themselves against the pressures of officialdom can be frustating. But they tend to carry out their duties in a spirit of goodwill rather of fostering division. A healthy scepticism about what the state can achieve sometimes means that more is accomplished. Above all they are an army of practical men and women – whose ranks I hope will be swelled this week. As Iain Macleod said:
“The socialists can scheme their schemes, and the Liberals can dream their dreams. But we have work to do.”