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Sir Vince Cable MP: May's local elections should be about housing, social care & the environment, not Brexit

4 min read

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable sets out his party's stall ahead of local election on 2nd May, which will be a crucial test of public opinion. He writes: "My hope is that this year will see greater participation and more fluid voting patterns".

Those whose consciousness of contemporary politics is entirely framed by the soap opera of Brexit may be surprised to hear that the next big political event in the UK will be local council elections on 2nd May. In the many towns and villages where these elections are taking place, doors are being knocked on, and leaflets delivered. The talk is of parking schemes, by-passes, bins, and open spaces rather than back-stops, customs unions, and regulatory convergence.

The local elections matter. They matter because local government matters. Many of the decisions which affect our daily lives are taken locally and it is right that the people who decide are subject to political accountability. There are many other decisions which used to be, and ought to be, decided locally which have been sucked into the orbit of a centralising Whitehall: education from infancy to further and adult education; council tax setting; much of housing policy. But, still, there is a lot left; and councils have also acquired responsibilities recently in areas like public safety.

Local elections are also useful as a barometer of public opinion more generally. However much we appeal for support for councillors on their personal merit and local achievement, there will always be a test of party fortunes.

On this occasion Brexit will inevitably colour voting preferences. The Conservatives will suffer because they are seen to be badly led and divided over Brexit. And many Conservative activists, who are more radical and pro-Brexit in their motivation, will not be willing to stuff envelopes and deliver leaflets or man polling stations. Labour has a similar problem but most of these elections are not in the Labour heartlands of big cities like London and Birmingham, so they have less at stake.  

For the Liberal Democrats, these elections are a good opportunity. We have generally been doing well in local by-elections. Our results last May were positive with 75 net gains. We have ground to be retrieved from disastrous elections in the Coalition years. And where we have control of local councils, they have a broadly favourable reputation. We stand to benefit from a swing from the Conservatives. So we have put a lot of effort in, and I have personally been going round to support council candidates from Yeovil to York, whenever I can escape the Westminster bubble and our Brexit-preoccupied Parliament.

By definition, local issues are local, but as I go around the country there are some common issues which cry out for attention and will influence local voting. I identify three in particular:

The first is housing. The dearth of affordable housing for purchase or rent is an issue almost everywhere, and is felt by young people in particular. The depletion of the stock of council housing through ‘right to buy’ and the lack of social house building because of central government restrictions has contributed to extreme problems, including homelessness, at the bottom of the housing ladder. Yet good councils have used the planning system and their borrowing powers to get housing, especially social housing, built and have made sure that there is a safety net of hostel accommodation for the homeless (as I have recently seen in York, Watford and Somerset with Lib Dem-led councils).

A second is social care. It is now generally recognised that many of the pressures with in the NHS are caused by the inability of cash-strapped local councils to provide adequate social services support – through domiciliary care or residential homes – resulting in ‘delayed discharge’ (it used to be called ‘bed blocking’) for many sick and elderly people. The failure of central government to confront the social care issue is resulting in mounting problems, and local government is bearing much of the burden.

Thirdly, there is the environment. Those who are motivated by the big environmental issues of the day – climate change, plastics recycling and air quality – realise that local communities and individuals can and do make a contribution in either direction.  Environmentally aware local councils are rightly declaring climate emergencies; there is a race to install electric charging points for zero emission vehicles; and recycling rates and methods are under scrutiny.

Local elections are all too often decided on relatively low turnouts and ‘tribal’ allegiances will hold sway for many people. My hope is that this year will see greater participation and more fluid voting patterns. I expect the Lib Dems to do well on the back of a good record in local government, a public appetite for breaking up the two party system, and – in many areas – the chance to ‘send a message’ to Westminster on Brexit too.

Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats & MP for Twickenham. He launched the party’s local election campaign at a rally in Yeovil earlier this month.

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