Councilor Van Meerbergen stated:
“It is not the case that [the] electorate is guided or motivated by the levels of communications pumped out by councillors on City Hall expense accounts. Citizens involve themselves in politics and policy-making when they have material interests at stake, primarily threats to the peaceable use of their property, the proper provision of basic city services or the threat of rising property taxation. Threats to these material interests motivate action. A lesson you and your colleagues ought to remember.”
At first blush, this seems like a depressingly cynical statement, that it is solely financial interests that motivate citizens to concern themselves with municipal politics. However, in a lot of ways, the Councilor is correct. There are plenty of public engagement exercises by Council, some legislated, some as additional activities; those that are best attended are those with financial implications. Or, look south of the border, the presidential debates are a battle over who will do the best for the economy. For swing-wards, the 2010 election in London was largely defined by whether one was supportive of the 0% tax increase or not. The further the electorate is from the machinations of City Council the more likely they are to see Council as simply picking their pocket, and people tend to be least engaged at the municipal level.
Looking towards the 2014 election, it will become clear that maintaining 0% without cutting ‘core’ services is impossible. Council will either bail out from 0%, or cut services deeply (while also tapping into reserves and increasing debt). Politically, what councilors choose to do will be a gamble on what the electorate care most about: saving money, or strong public services. In west London, Van Meerbergen is already putting all his chips on the first option, and I’m sure he’s not wrong.
Which brings us full circle to where Van Meerbergen’s comment first came from, which was a response to a survey by citizens to explore how councilors do citizen engagement (results posted tomorrow). As Brian Gibson demonstrates, there is an increasing interest from the electorate at the municipal level. If this grows, it will change both the way politics is done in London, and in the long-term the face of the City itself. If it comes to nothing, the pocket-book voter will continue as the majority, and a lesson will be learned.