During short breaks between hours of recession-beating property auctions and bargain searches, viewers this Easter have been barraged by parties pleading for votes. David Cameron reminded them that times are hard, Nick Clegg gave a slightly creative economics lecture and Ed Miliband used his life story to remind them of good days of overspending and underestimating. Across the nation, they were told, it is time to make a change by voting in the local elections.
It’s true beyond all doubt that councils matter. Whether they are the heart and soul of the locality, over-bureaucratised messes or even just a general groaning presence within our towns, they matter. The council can affect our lives from the cradle to the grave, and the party leaders have helpfully volunteered to remind us of just that.
Yet, it is precisely this pro-action on the part of central parties which detracts from the importance of local elections. Local elections are not about large-scale cuts from central government, they can’t change that; they are not about which leader inspires the most trust; they are definitely not about national issues. They are about the individuals from our areas that we trust the most to protect the services we care about, to represent our interests; but, most importantly, the local elections are about the everyday issues that affect our lives: bin collections, cycle lanes, schooling, attitudes to students and priorities that could make an immediate difference.
In many ways local elections are more important than Westminster elections; that’s why parties’ decisions to let loose the Westminster big dogs on the campaign is completely misguided. People don’t want to vote for David Cameron right now, they aren’t ready to vote for Ed Miliband and they don’t care for Nick Clegg, but everyone cares for their area. Local elections are important because of what they are, not because of the national figures that endorse them.
In order to get more people involved in local elections, national publicity campaigns should leave Westminster out of it and instead spend more time advertising the opportunities to vote by post or proxy, and show the projects that have been completed purely as a result of council campaigns and funding. There is a role for the national media in local campaigns, but that role is not the imposition of impersonal messages from leaders. It is the publicising of the overarching interests, achievements and opportunities which can be offered by local elections.
If party leaders want us to vote in local elections then, now more than ever, their best option is to just let us vote; get off our TVs, leave us to our choice of high-value day time programming and, finally, let local elections stay local.