On the level? Party campaigns and media coverage of the European and council elections

Political scientists, and indeed the general public, will be well aware that government operates at various jurisdictional levels. It is over twenty years since Gary Marks first coined the term ‘multilevel governance’, although of course the notion that governmental tasks are shared across different tiers of public administration pre-dates him significantly. Nonetheless, the idea of multi-level governance is particularly important in environmental policy: some issues are hyper-local, some require international action, whilst others need a co-ordinated response across tiers of government.

Indeed, the origins of modern local government the UK can be traced back to a need to respond to environmental concerns. The pace of industrial change in the 19th century led to a public health crisis in the rapidly-expanding cities: cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases were common. In order to deal with these outbreaks, central government set up multi-purpose local authorities to oversee sanitation and other local environmental improvements. More recently, as issues such as transboundary pollution and climate change have increased in importance, supranational and international bodies such as the EU and UN have tried to oversee how states are responding to environmental concerns.

In the run-up to and aftermath of last week’s elections, the reality of this multi-level situation (which applies equally to many other policy sectors) appears to have escaped the attention of the UK’s major political parties and mainstream media. The campaigns were dominated by national issues over which local councils and the European Parliament (EP) have virtually no influence whatsoever. For example, Labour announced a revival of its policy that all NHS patients should get to see a GP within 48 hours, while the Conservatives stressed that they wanted to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. UKIP repeatedly stated that the UK should leave the Union and limit EU immigration, while the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves in opposition to UKIP as the only “party of in”.

It was striking that none of these messages related to what candidates for the local council or EP would actually be able to do if they were elected. Instead, the elections were seen (and reported by the mainstream media) as a dress rehearsal for the general election in May 2015. Indeed, hardly any councillors were actually interviewed by the BBC following the count on Thursday, and (with the exception of Nigel Farage) nearly all of those commenting on the European election results were based in Westminster rather than Brussels.

This is in spite of the fact that MEPs are able to exercise increasingly more power over those policy sectors in which the EU has some jurisdiction. For the first time they will play a key role in deciding on the make-up of the next European Commission, yet incredibly the campaigns by various leading members of the EP groupings to head this institution went almost unreported in the UK media. Other issues, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), climate change and workers’ rights – areas over which the EU and its Parliament can exercise significant influence – were also largely ignored. As indeed was the idea that voters may have taken local issues into account when deciding how to cast their ballot in council elections.

Election campaigns provide a unique opportunity for candidates to discuss political issues with voters. But if local and European campaigns do not explain what councils and the EP are able to do, perhaps it is not surprising that these institutions are sometimes criticised for being unresponsive.

Peter Eckersley, @peckersley

Newcastle University


*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*