Friday morning’s headlines can pretty much already be written: Conservatives suffer heavy losses in local elections; a humbled Boris Johnson addresses the nation saying that lessons have been learned; backbench MPs resume plotting, trying to decide whether to move now or in a few months’ time. Former Tory voters will be feeling pleased with themselves that they have left the government with a bloody nose, and who knows? Maybe it will be the jolt that succeeds in getting the government to concentrate on what really matters at the moment – the cost of living crisis – and to stop faffing around with other things.
But there will be a very disagreeable outcome, too. Our councils will be lumbered with a load of councillors who have been elected not because they have any bright ideas about how to handle bin collections or visionary planning policies but because they provided a convenient opportunity to register a protest vote against the government. Why do we have such bad local government in Britain? Because it happens every time: so long as local elections are used as mid-term referendums on central government, local councils will be able to get away with murder. We will be ripped off with parking fines, fobbed off with bin collections once every three weeks, have our taxes frittered away on investigations into historical links with slavery – but we won’t be able to complain because these policies will have been enacted by the people we elected.
Over the past 15 years governments have repeatedly tried to press bigger, stronger local government on us through elected mayors. When we have had the chance to vote on it, more often than not we have rejected the idea. Fair enough, the voting public has correctly worked out that extra layers of government will mean more waste and higher taxes. But there is a role for local government doing local things, like keeping the streets clean and keeping parks free of dog poo – and it’s one that we undermine when we try to use local elections merely to register a protest vote. So, if you are going out to vote tomorrow, forget trying to give Boris a bruising and instead pay attention to the policies that all candidates are planning to impose on your district. Either that or forget about bleating about a low traffic neighbourhood when it is eventually imposed on you.