William Wallace writes: Can we campaign on local democracy

One of the assumptions of political campaigning is that voters are not interested in political machinery.  Schools, hospitals, trains and buses, yes: Councils, regional authorities, elected mayors and voting systems, no.  But have we now reached a point where this has changed, where it might even help us to include in this year’s local election campaigning arguments for stronger local authorities and less dictation from Westminster?

In the much-delayed Levelling-Up White Paper Michael Gove has promised ‘devolution’: by which he means imposing elected mayors, with limited local scrutiny, on most urban areas that haven’t yet accepted them, and ‘governors’ on rural counties.  Governors are what empires send out to keep distant districts under control, while money and power remain at the centre.  Ministerial treatment of almost all elected mayors except Ben Houchem (Teeside’s Tory mayor) has been patronising – expected to do Whitehall’s bidding and be grateful for the Packages of money they are offered.  Michael Gove treats even Andy Street and Andy Burnham with disdain; Grant Shapps has attacked Tracey Brabin and Dan Jarvis (West and South Yorkshire mayors) as ‘irrational’ for their criticisms of the Integrated Rail Strategy.

This Tory government is irrationally against public service (and public servants) in general, and autonomous local authorities running local services close to ordinary people in particular.  One of the many scandals of the past 3 years is Johnson’s instinctive preference for outsourcing companies to run Test and Trace when the pandemic erupted, ignoring the public health officers with their established local knowledge and contacts across the country – who would have organised a better scheme at a fraction of the vast among of money paid out to these multinational firms.  Education is micro-managed from Whitehall, in partnership with academy chains, with intermittent attention to what local parents want.  ‘Levelling Up’ is packaged as hand-outs from the centre, with competitive bids and ministerial discretion to favour places with Conservative MPs.

Repeated re-organizations have reduced the numbers of local councils and councillors.  Creation of a single North Yorkshire Authority has reduced that county’s councillors from 280 to 92, in single wards across a vast area.  Few voters now know their local councillors, and councillors in turn have influence over few of the issues that voters care about.  No wonder that MPs now spend so much of their time on constituency issues, to the detriment of challenging the government on national issues.

The Levelling Up White Paper will offer sham devolution, with central government still controlling priorities and purse-strings. It will also be a sham in its financial promises. Johnson promised to replace in full the regional funds that previously flowed through the EU budget; current predictions suggest that the ‘new’ funding will amount to less than 2/3rds of this.  The packages of funding for towns and other local schemes is also much less than the Treasury has cut from local authority funding since 2015.  Tories are keener on tax cuts than on investing in their country’s less prosperous regions; any serious commitment to long-term regeneration requires an increase in overall spending.

Liberal Democrats believe in government as close to local communities as possible.  Previous generation of Conservatives used to think the same, but have given way to a centralised party machine.  So let’s campaign to ‘take back control’ for our cities, towns and rural communities.  Tell the voters that it was a betrayal for Johnson and his friends to take back power from Brussels only to concentrate it in London.  Local control of public transport, of health provision, education – perhaps even of water supply, returned to regional (or shared local) control and accountability from the private utilities which have extracted excess profits while investing too little.  Not just mayors, answering to London as much as to voters, but councillors who voters can recognise and put their concerns to.  Local democracy has been undermined for far too long.  Let’s champion the case for revival.

* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in News.


  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Feb '22 - 9:14am

    Thank you for an interesting and important article.

    The actual socio-economic practices of H. M. G seem to be from the playbook of Neo-Liberal economic theory.
    Upon which economic theory or school of thought are L. D. Policies based?

  • Chris Moore 2nd Feb '22 - 9:32am

    Great to see a suggested policy and campaigning initiative on LDV that would actually be popular with voters.

  • Kay Kirkham 2nd Feb '22 - 9:41am

    Re the North Yorkshire ‘problem’ there is a network of parish councils in the county who should be flexing their muscles in support of their local communities. Parish Councils tend to get forgotten but they are a tier of local government in their own right.

  • Barry Lofty 2nd Feb '22 - 10:09am

    A very sensible article which highlights the very worrying scenario facing this country while this present excuse for a government is in power, full of lies and slight of hands.

  • John Marriott 2nd Feb '22 - 5:03pm

    If we are to have meaningful devolution on these islands then there are times when Central Government just needs to butt out. I view it as a strength that, in their responses to COVID, the nations of the U.K., while generally adopting similar measures, each have had their individual nuanced approach. The onus is therefore on the electors to participate in deciding who should wield the power, where it should be aimed and what the priorities should be. However, in some matters, a uniform approach is in my view essential and cannot be avoided. The last thing we need in certain areas such as defence, environmental protection and economic policy, to name just three areas, is a free for all.

    In many aspects of their lives local people should be empowered to make local decisions, or at least elect to office those people they entrust to carry out their wishes. In saying this, if these decisions do not produce the desired results the buck has got to stay with them and not passed on. That’s surely where the ballot box comes in to its own.

    From my many years of experience in local government I never lost that feeling that many in central government, be they MPs, Ministers or civil servants, exhibited in their direct dealings with us a certain aura of intellectual superiority, a superiority which I felt was never completely justified. Certainly the recent antics at Westminster would seem to cast doubts on this superiority.

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Feb '22 - 10:54am

    and to prevent erosion of any gains achieved, we need to campaign for a constitutional settlement for local government so the next PM cannot reverse them on a whim. Super-majorities can be installed even without a proper constitution. Local government funding, powers and accountability should be protected by such a mechanism.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Peter Martin
    @ Chris, Adam and David, So can we all agree (except perhaps Alex ) that being in favour of the EU does require uncritical support? This is a big problem...
  • Alex Macfie
    @Adam: I rarely read BtL comments in newspaper articles as they tend not to be representative of public opinion. All I can say is that such opinions as you have...
  • Adam
    "Given the avalanche of unending and captious criticism of the EU from the pro-Brexiteer nationalist establishment prior to Brexit, it’s scarcely surprising t...
  • David Allen
    Peter Martin, "In practice, we seldom, if ever, see any criticism of the EU from its supporters." Yeah, yeah, yeah. When the Tories make a political broa...
  • Chris Moore
    Given the avalanche of unending and captious criticism of the EU from the pro-Brexiteer nationalist establishment prior to Brexit, it's scarcely surprising that...