2 April 2023

Weekly Briefing: Councils of despair


This week Rishi Sunak popped into a ‘living museum’ in the West Midlands, Keir Starmer delivered a rousing speech in Swindon and, in true Lib Dem style, Ed Davey drove a big yellow tractor into some blue hay bales. Yes, folks, it’s that magical time of year when Westminster starts taking a keen interest in local councils – though judging by recent turnout, that enthusiasm is not reciprocated by many voters.

As local elections go, the ones on May 4 are a pretty big deal: more than 8,000 seats are up for grabs in 230 English councils, along with 11 in Northern Ireland and a scattering of mayoralties. The last time these seats were contested in the fag end of Theresa May’s premiership, the Tories took an almighty battering, with 1,300 councillors and 44 councils lost.

This time round, Labour have hit on a novel campaigning tactic, promising voters that if they were in government, council tax would be frozen this year. Not only does their council tax freeze only exist in an alternative timeline where Labour won the 2019 general election, but it’s also going to be funded by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, which already exists (although ministers seem curiously reluctant to mention it). Labour will quibble that a mere 65% tax on profits isn’t ‘proper’, but it’s certainly enough for oil and gas companies to be reconsidering their investment in the UK.

It’s also worth noting that a year ago Labour were planning to use the same windfall tax to bring down energy bills. The recycling of hypothetical, hypothecated tax rises all feels a bit reminiscent of coalition-era Ed Miliband and the Banker’s Bonus Tax, which he suggested spending on half a dozen different policies.

Of course, this annual back-and-forth about who is raising or lowering council tax by a few percentage points obscures a much more basic point: that the entire system is completely unfit for purpose, based on bands that are unreformed since 1991 and where owners of extremely valuable properties pay a relative pittance.

If Labour’s council tax pledge is laughably incoherent, it’s probably because they figure they can get away with it (likewise with the dodgy maths on this recent attack ad).

After 13 years in government, the Tories seem to view these elections as something to endure, rather than contest. That rather glum outlook might explain why Sunak’s launch event in the Black Country was so low-key that most of the press didn’t even realise it was happening. Although, to be fair to the PM, he did manage to sum up an almost preternatural enthusiasm for pothole policy on a visit to Darlington this week.

If there’s a saving grace for Sunak, it’s that expectations for his party are so low that he can really only exceed them. His five-point plan, particularly the focus on inflation and small boats, still looks like the most plausible path to unlikely electoral redemption. But it’s one that will take a lot more than the six months he’s been in office to come good.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.