The politics of subnational units. Liberal theorists customarily assess the strength of local democracy, and thus focus on electoral politics, the politics of decision‐making and governing accountability in elected local government. In comparative terms local politics appears to be heavily shaped by the degree of federalism. Federal states have strong local politics although the autonomy of local politics in the United States from interest‐group pressures has long been controversial (see also community power; pluralism; machine). Unitary states such as France and Britain tend to have weak local politics (although in France this is tempered by the custom of national politicians doubling up as mayors of their local commune). In Britain the electoral politics of local government has been dominated by political parties, whose fortunes in local elections have been determined by voters who turn out in relatively small numbers—rarely over 50 per cent—and who often vote in a second‐order manner according to how they feel about national politics at the time. Debates about electoral reform have led to the adoption of the single transferable vote (STV) system in Scotland, but there remain underlying problems in the extent to which electors are knowledgeable about decision‐making in local councils and relate to local representative democracy.
In recent decades innovation has focused on reconceiving the basis of local politics, decision‐making, and accountability. Developments in local government from the 1980s increased the range and number of service‐providing bodies at the local level, meaning that elected local authorities became one—although still the most important—amongst a number of institutions of local governance. Liberal optimists suggest that the required partnership working between local agencies has enhanced the accountability of elected local government in its community context. Pessimists suggest that the networks across local governance have exacerbated the closed, self‐interested elite nature of the governing process.
More broadly, the new right in the USA and Britain innovated by conceptualizing local politics as the local market‐place for the provision of services. In the 1980s they advocated market solutions to service delivery problems and the contraction of local government in favour of a range of private, voluntary, and quasi‐governmental agencies at a local level. They viewed this market‐place of service providers which rose to replace the monopolistic control of elected local government as automatically a good thing. As a corollary to this the local citizen was conceived as a customer whose political participation was made through consumer actions in the local service market‐place. In Britain the new public management revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on the development of market‐based methods in the supply of services. The development of an active customer‐orientated culture in demand was more problematic. The citizens' charters for local government launched in the early 1990s attempted to enhance local government accountability to service consumers and local tax‐payers.
The Blair–Brown Governments after 1997 espoused a broader rhetoric of citizen participation, encouraging local government in the use of a wide range of consultation methods, forums, and approaches to deliberative democracy. At the same time, however, they did much to consolidate a customer‐orientated culture through a stress on service league tables and service delivery satisfaction evaluation. The co‐existence of consumerist and citizen‐focused approaches to reactivating local politics has in itself been problematic, and both seem to have largely failed. Local councils widely report a halting take‐up of opportunities to participate in local decision‐making, and the new right model of local politics has failed to take root. One motivation for the poll tax reform in the 1980s was to increase awareness of the true costs of local government, and hence make citizens behave as active consumers and vote for what they were prepared to pay for. In practice it had the opposite effect as central taxes were transferred to paying for local services in a vain attempt to relieve the tax's unpopularity. The episode ended with local participation weaker than when it began, and arguably little has really been achieved since.