THEPinion polls are a useful guide to political mood, but opinion is all they capture. The actual votes cast at the polls provide a different quality of information. For election nerds, 2020 was a data drought, but rains are coming.
On May 6, a large number of postponed voting due to the pandemic will take place along with the batch scheduled for 2021. All voters from England, Scotland and Wales are invited to a polling station, although the races do not have the same consequences. Nicola Sturgeon’s position in Holyrood is more important than Solihull’s Tory control. In some parts of England, only the local police and crime commissioner position is available.
There is also a by-election for the Hartlepool parliamentary seat. That contest is already attracting disproportionate media interest. The outcome is likely to be the subject of more Westminster comment than the distribution of seats in the Cardiff Senedd. There is a Westminster family folklore attached: the apocryphal story of Peter Mandelson, a former MP for the seat, mistaking mushy peas for guacamole. There are no fun avocado-related pegs to hang the Welsh parliament on, just the banal fact that it is the seat of government for a decentralized nation of 3.1 million people.
The by-election comes across as a flat political story: Labor’s safe seat turned marginal by Brexit; loose brick in the “red wall” that could still be dislodged.
Sadiq Khan’s bid to retain the mayor of London will also have wide media coverage. The competition is not fierce, but it is in the capital where most of the people who appear in the news have a vote.
British politics is heavily skewed towards London. That brings up a particular kind of cosmopolitan narrow-mindedness that thinks it is immune to parochialism because it looks from a global center. Even when ministers know that there is a problem of excessive centralization, they look for patrician solutions. They offer to raise up ignorant provinces with gifts from the metropolis: a Treasury satellite for Darlington; a stretch of Whitehall transplanted to Wolverhampton.
That imbalance of power causes all kinds of problems. TO recent report The Institute of Government identified the lack of coordination with local authorities as a major cause of error in handling the pandemic. The authors of the report found the relationship marked by “bitterness” and “suspicion.” One of his sources highlights a “shameful and condescending view of the local government” as incapable and inexperienced.
Relations with decentralized administrations were also tense, but for more partisan reasons. Boris Johnson’s Downing Street takes Nicola Sturgeon seriously enough, but that doesn’t make the dialogue more constructive or respectful.
These are old problems. Historically, the local government faced a desperate situation. The power and prestige that came with the job weren’t enough to attract impressive candidates; the low caliber of the candidates justified the reluctance of the central government to grant more powers and, therefore, to reinforce prestige. That is now (mostly) an outdated bias, but Whitehall attitudes are slow to adapt.
Even when the agenda is “leveling up,” the mechanism is to cordon off a pile of cash in the Treasury and invite regional leaders to present their case, while ensuring that the conservatives on the electoral target lists skip the queue.
Few high-ranking national politicians apprentice at their local council. Youthful ambition is more quickly satisfied as a special advisor, although the skills acquired in this way are different. Councilors often have to form coalitions with their rivals. Swords learn to undermine and destroy.
Johnson blazed a trail by reaching Downing Street through London City Hall, although it was the glamor of the capital that attracted him. (It is doubtful that he would have run for mayor of the West Midlands combined authority, had the position existed at the time.)
Other high-profile mayoralties are exercising political gravity. Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Khan are more important figures in the Labor firmament than anyone else in the shadow cabinet apart from Keir Starmer. Both mayors communicate more freely and convincingly than as deputies. It’s as if their throats are clearer and the off-center air is easier to breathe than the stale atmosphere of the Commons. Bristol’s Marvin Rees also speaks with refreshing natural authority.
Andy Street, the conservative mayor of the West Midlands, has had less of an impact for a number of reasons. He is not a colorful speaker. A duty of loyalty to Downing Street means fewer opportunities to shine in defending the region. If Street loses to Liam Byrne in May (and the race is close) it will be interesting to see if opposition control raises the height of the mayoralty platform.
Not all metro mayors have the same powers. The system has evolved through an intricate trajectory of negotiation, legislation, suturing, and referendum. Is a stranger constitutional mosaic. There are four different types of mayors in England. In Liverpool, a mayor position (which runs the city council) is vacant because the incumbent was arrested in connection with allegations of systemic corruption. But another mayor (for the city region) is not involved in the scandal and is running for re-election.
There is an unsolved question on the very basis on which power must be distributed: geography or identity? Scots feel more intensely Scottish than West Midlandish people. But meeting a historic claim to self-determination is a different challenge than deciding at what level public services should be administered. The debate on refoulement entangles the two issues.
Following lines of jurisdiction can feel like analyzing structures in the Soviet Union, with its semi-autonomous regions within provinces within republics. In reality, power was transmitted from the Kremlin along partisan lines.
The difference is that Britain has a multi-party democracy. Votes cast on May 6 will be counted. Local regimes will change. And yet, there will also be a gap between the scale of the electoral event and its impact. In a less centralized system and a less parochial political culture, it would be Super Thursday: an occasion in which the country exercised the power of the ballot box. Instead, it will be another one of those days when millions of trips to the polling stations feel overly ceremonial, because somehow the real power is always elsewhere.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism