Thursday 19 April 2012

At it ahain

According to Hain, the council elections are both an opportunity, in that horribly hackneyed and by now meaningless phrase, “to send a message” to Cameron and the Tories, and should also be used as “a referendum on the UK Government’s budget”.
Even were the Tories wiped out in Wales – a not impossible scenario, although unlikely – I’m not sure what sort of message that would be.  I don’t think that Cameron needs any further ‘messages’ to know that people in Wales are not over-fond of his party – nor that people in Wales would, by and large, prefer to have Labour politicians cutting their services rather than Tory ones.
There’s plenty of existing electoral and opinion polling data from which he can already draw both of those conclusions, just as easily as I have.  The only clear ‘message’ to emerge from this semaphoric activity is that Hain sees local elections as essentially a side-show to the main event, which is to restore him to his rightful place at the cabinet table prepare for the next parliamentary election in 2015.
The mantra that we should vote for Labour Party politicians to cut our services, simply ‘because they’re not Tories’, is a pretty negative and depressing one, not least because it looks like an attempt to avoid any real discussion of the essentially local issues for which councillors are responsible.
It might work for them electorally, of course; and perhaps nothing else matters.  Increasingly, it seems that ‘getting elected’ is more important to most politicians than actually changing anything afterwards.  I don’t know how they’ll know whether or not it worked though.  The Tories seem on course for significant losses almost whatever tactics the Labour Party use.
It’s not particularly good for local democracy.  But given the increasingly centralist tendencies of successive Welsh Governments, perhaps local democracy is doomed anyway.  Without a radical re-empowerment of local authorities, and significant devolution within Wales rather than merely to Wales, there seems to be little chance of recovering the situation.


Anonymous said...

I suppose Hain & co want all their candidates & representatives to be of the calibre highlighted in today's front page of the Western Mail.

Adam Higgitt said...

What I'm about to say will probably be dismissed on the grounds that "he would say that, wouldn't he?" but here goes, any way.

It almost goes without saying that in an ideal world we would want each and every election contested and decided on the basis of the issues at hand at that tier of government. Personally speaking, as I've argued many times before, I want to see weaker parties and more independent-minded political representatives at all levels who will put their constituents before their party rather more often, something that is happening at Westminster but not, ironically, at the Assembly. In this ideal world, we wouldn't even really be talking about the "local election campaign", we'd be engrossed in the contest taking place in our own wards, with perhaps an eye on the overall control of our local authority.

But successful political parties are nothing if not realistic about the extent to which this happens, and the things that really motivate voters. And they also have an eye on the strategic game and the perception of "momentum". Anyone who has campaigned on the doorsteps for any period of time will know that many if not most electors cast their votes not on a forensic appraisal of the issues and who is best placed to address them, but on what pollsters call "valence", i.e who strikes them in quite a general sense as the most competent and trustworthy. This is the context in which Labour's "depressing and negative" message (and indeed the message of any party that seeks to highlight a dividing line between itself and its opponents) needs to be seen. It is a recognition that the time that it (Labour) will have to impress on voters the need to vote for it is very, very limited indeed and that it needs a good result at local level to demonstrate that it can win at other levels.

But I wouldn't infer from this a lack of vision or capacity to govern well. I suspect that Labour has no more or fewer bright ideas for how to run the local authorities in question than any other party, especially given how relatively weak these bodies are and thus how limited the scope is for truly innovative policy-making. It is just that Labour has chosen to try and maximise its support by encouraging a protest vote. Others are going on what they think is most likely to deliver them the greatest number of votes. All are thinking of their positioning for the "bigger" contests ahead.

The final question is whether that tactic is in some way bad for the body politic, and here you have a point. It strikes me that the surest way for local authority elections to remain "second order" contests is for all involved to treat them as such. But this is a critique of the overbearing strength of parties in general rather than a comment on the approach Labour is taking (although Labour appears to be the worst offender in this instance). Labour is doing what it thinks will win it most votes and seats in quite a rational way. What needs to change is not the mindset of the Labour party, or even the preferences of the electorate, but the stranglehold that these centralised organisations have on our choice of candidates.

John Dixon said...


I certainly wouldn't dismiss your comments as easily as that. The points you make are ones with which I'd basically agree; and I'd also agree that it isn't only Labour who follow this approach.

It does, however, underline the extent of the disconnect, which has been growing for a long time, between 'winning elections' on the one hand, and 'what we are for' on the other. The latter is crowded out by the former, and I just don't think that's a good thing at all. (And over a period, it isn't only Labour that I have criticised for such an approach!)

As I suggested in the post, revitalising local democracy by giving councils real influence would help (and I've previously suggested the mroe radical alternative of taking responsibility away from them if they are not to have real power), but that's not enough.

I'm not sure whether the problem lies with parties in the way you suggest, so much as with the primacy of their aim of winning which isn't exactly the same thing. But I certainly do think that parties could do more to break the pattern if they were more willing to engage in a more positive way. The difficulty, though, is that as long as the current approach 'succeeds', it creates a form of positive feedback for the tactics.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately the majority of people who can be bothered to vote will not have the slightest clue why they are voting for them. Apart from the obvious reason that they are not the bloody tories.

Evry self respecting patriot in Wales needs to declare war on Labour.

Spirit of BME said...

Your last para says it all.
Since Local Government Acts of 1970 the drift to centralisation has been ceaseless.
Plaid`s time as part of HMG in Wales saw no change to this slide – although we are a decentralist party and I am undecided on how it should be viewed.-
Should I forget it and put it down to a rather embarrassing part of our history OR should I seek an explanation from those Plaid Ministers who happily centralized what they could and ask that they face an inquiry.

John Dixon said...


I agree that the One Wales government was, in practice, no more decentralist than its predecessors or its successors. Whether that's because they were advised by the same civil servants - natural centralisers - is an interesting academic question, but not really much of an excuse.

I have some sympathy for how it happens; politicians have a natural wish to be seen to deliver and it can be hard to do that when they don't have direct control, but that isn't much of an excuse either. Being decentralist in practice, rather than just in theory, requires a great deal of courage and political will, since it implicitly requires a willingness to accept a variation in service provision in any decentralised services.

For the future, I think we need to decide which services (if any) we are happy to see provided in different ways to different standards across Wales, and in those cases devolve total responsibility to local authorities, including full responsibility for raising the revenue to pay for them. And in the case of services where we feel that consistency of provision is important, then they should be run centrally, rather than continuing with the pretence that local democracy has any significant rôle. Such an approach, however, requires a re-think from first principles about what local government is about, and is something which all politicians seem afraid to tackle.

It's not for me to advise you whether or not to "seek an explanation"!