How to make your vote count in local elections – Bernard Ingham

PERHAPS, inevitably, the outcome of tomorrow’s local and regional elections and the Hartlepool by-election will be seen as a verdict on Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic over the past 12 months.

Boris Johnson on the campaign trail in Hartlepool this week.
Boris Johnson on the campaign trail in Hartlepool this week.

If the Tories do badly, it will also be portrayed as a slap over “Wallpapergate” – as the expensive decoration of his official flat is uninventively described.

Alternatively, if the Tories do well, the election will be dubbed as another nail in the coffin of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer even though, for all his faults, he is a vast improvement on his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

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I suppose our national political leadership will also kop it if by far the most important of tomorrow’s polls sends the Scottish Nationalists back to Holyrood with a mandate for another independence referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First minister and SNP Leader, wants a mandate this week for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Here both the Tories and Labour might deserve some criticism. They have not been asking many of the 20 questions I recently posed in this column on how the Nationalists will cope with independence in or out of the EU.

Instead, Boris is resorting to infrastructure bribery.

The polls suggest Nationalist fervour is waning. Let’s hope, for the Scots’ sake as well as ours, that they are getting cold 
feet. The future of the UK may depend on it.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s stance is frankly irresponsible in seeking independence without giving us – or the Scots – a glimmer of how she would cope economically, control its borders and defend the British Isles or whether she would ditch the Queen for some obscure presidential kilt.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on the local election campaign trail.

South of the border we would do well to think less about Covid, Boris’s wallpaper or Sir Keir and a lot more about how local candidates, closer to the people, propose to look after our interests in a cash-strapped Britain.

Admittedly, Boris has not shown much concern about cash in refurbishing his No 11 flat. But as a taxpayer I am all in favour of a benevolent private citizen picking up the tab, provided we know who it is to prevent cronyism. The question is not the donation, but the openness of the process.

Returning to tomorrow’s poll, I must confess to a certain weariness about local government. It is worrying since my father was an unpaid councillor for a couple of decades and I tried – and mercifully failed – to become one in Leeds in 1965.

I have never got over the Ted Heath/Peter Walker reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s. Where I come from – the alleged cesspit of Hebden Bridge – it distanced the people from their council by absorbing urban and rural authorities in an enlarged borough.

What is your verdict on Boris Johnson ahead of this week's local elections?

Then the concept of voluntary service was eroded with the payment of councillor allowances, now worth a minimum of over £10,000 a year, for just turning up.

These allowances cost UK taxpayers £225m a year and have so inflated the salaries of unelected officials that more than 700 of them are coining more than the Prime Minister.

Councils lost their relative independence from central government when they ceased to raise the majority of their cash from rates.

And then came Margaret Thatcher’s ill-fated poll tax as a means of securing more local taxpayer control over free-spending councils.

And did some of them spend freely! My current local authority – Croydon – has been so seriously mismanaged that it is £1.5bn in debt and effectively bankrupt. Inevitably my council tax bill is soaring five times the rate of inflation.

For 30 years or more I have railed at a succession of local authorities blaming government parsimony, regardless of national finances, for their penury while at the same time paying themselves and staff handsomely and/or indulging in vanity projects.

Latterly my disaffection has intensified as councils have taken advantage of Covid to discourage car use, with cycle and bus lanes and road closures resulting in more environmentally polluting congestion.

Tomorrow will add another tier of local government in West Yorkshire with the election of a mayor on top of those in Halifax, Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Wakefield.

Polls have shown little evidence of public demand or interest. And, let’s face it, a West Yorkshire mayor is irrelevant to a region’s success without a thriving national economy.

The first priority is to decide who recognises this and is best equipped to make the most telling use of available resources in what, after spending £400bn on fighting Covid-19, will be tight circumstances.

Tomorrow’s question is not Covid, “Wallpapergate” or Sir Keir. It is who – and, remember, individuals make the difference – will do best for your hometown, Yorkshire and the UK.

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