As Brexit rumbles on (and on, and on), Westminster politics has come under sustained pressure.
If the referendum vote was all about ‘taking back control’ from London, from the elites, from Westminster itself, has it triggered any decisive shift in support for a new national – local relationship, to mirror our new EU-UK separation?
Certainly, we are fed up with Westminster. Every month since 1974, Ipsos has asked the British what the biggest problem facing the country is. No prompting, just what springs to mind as the biggest issue in their own words. In the last few months the top 10 issues have been joined by record mentions of “useless politicians”, the highest spontaneous concern about politicians in Britain we have ever measured.
In the longrunning Audit of Political Engagement for the Hansard Society the proportion saying our system of government needs a "great deal of improvement" has doubled since 2003, and some three quarters now say it needs improvement.
Now, as before the referendum, local government remains far more trusted and better regarded than Whitehall. When we asked recently who has the public’s best interests at heart for The Hansard Society, 44% say local government does, compared to only 33% for the government, and only 29% for political parties.
So what about more change to really ‘take back control’? One of our last big constitutional changes, the introduction of devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland, has been a qualified success in terms of its impact on public trust, with the devolved institutions well trusted by the public, far ahead of UK government’s ratings.
Can we see support for similar changes in England? There is relatively little sign in the dozens of different surveys that have examined different aspects of localism in Britain that older voters – who predominantly voted for taking back control in the referendum – also favour taking back real local control from Whitehall government if it means significant institutional change, or local tax raising powers. While in Britain 57% say decisions about public services are better if made locally, only 40% say they support giving local councils more powers at the expense of central government, and 20% disagree. Reorganising local government is not what we social scientists call a ‘salient’ issue. Some 52% agree that they don’t care who makes decisions about local services as long as they are delivered well.
English localism is half hearted – the public are not particularly keen on giving local councils more ‘real’ power. Despite the dissatisfaction with the current political system in England, recent surveys show only 41% support an English parliament to match Welsh and Scottish ones, and limited support for regional government to run services like the NHS. Among Brexit voters, 52% support an English parliament (32% among Remain voters). So it may be that opinion is going to shift, but money, and especially tax, as always, is the problem.
Ipsos polling for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found that 85% thought that local communities should have more say over decisions that affect them, and only 4% disagreed. But on taxation only 41% in the same survey agreed that “more of the money spent by local councils should be raised locally”, and some 30% disagreed. The irony is that in fact government cuts to the grant it gives local government, and an increased dependence on council tax has made this happen. However, when you start to talk about real tax and spend powers, support for localism dries up. A majority in Britain (55%) are opposed to giving the local administrations in London, Birmingham or Manchester the same tax raising powers – limited though they are – that the Scottish government has.
Ultimately localism and the mechanics and detail of local government reform does not excite people. Local government, despite being seen as more benign than central government, and more likely to be “on your side”, is not ultimately any more trusted over tax. The irony about Brexit, which was all about ‘taking back control’ is that the latest Hansard Society study in late 2018 shows Brexit voters are in fact less likely than average to think they actually have influence on local or national decisions – but are also less likely to want to have local or national influence. As far as more local control goes, the Brexit vote does not signal a sea change in support for localism in Britain but sounds more like an inchoate howl of political pain.
With little public enthusiasm for structural reform, and central government utterly gummed up with Brexit, councils are probably best placed in looking at ‘what works’ locally. Examples like Wigan MBC hold out hope that whatever the government does or doesn’t do, great local leadership will always make a difference.
Published in Local Government Chronicle on 22 May.