Local turnouts to thrive under the shadow of national issues

13 Apr 10
The local elections should attract a large number of voters thanks to the simultaneous national elections. And that could lead to some strange results. David Williams reports
May’s local elections should attract a large number of voters thanks to the simultaneous national elections. And that could lead to some strange results. David Williams reports

13 April 2010

By David Williams

It is a sad irony of the UK’s democratic system that while this year’s local elections in England could result in one of the highest turnouts in recent years, local factors won’t be the main reason for voters going to the polls.

This year’s bitterly-fought general election campaign threatens to eclipse its less glamorous local counterpart. But, with 4,200 seats up for grabs across 166 councils, there is still much for each party to play for.

In 135 of those authorities, including 36 metropolitan borough councils, a third of the seats are being contested this year. In seven district councils, half the seats will be up for grabs. London could steal the show, with 100% of its council seats up for election in each of its 32 boroughs. There will also be three mayoral elections in the capital, and another in Watford.
It is widely agreed that the turnout this year will be significantly higher than average. What effect the national election will have on the local ones is more in dispute.

Last year’s disastrous council elections  topped a decade of consecutive net council seat losses for Labour. However, Chris Leslie, director of the New Local Government Network, says conjoined elections can lead to strange results, but will usually favour the party of government.

‘As it is not a mid-term election, you won’t be punished with a “let’s kick the incumbent party” approach,’ he says, suggesting Labour could fare better this year than in preceding years. Its fortunes are also likely to be boosted by the fact that this year’s polling is centred more on urban areas than shire counties.

Leslie adds that the general election race could motivate Labour voters, which might in turn reverse the trend of disenchanted supporters staying at home. ‘This will be a close general election and it may be that they start winning back a few councils,’ he says, adding that in 1979 Labour gained ground locally even as Jim Callaghan’s government fell.

Rob Banks, political adviser for the Liberal Democrat group at the Local Government Association, says apparently contradictory results would not be unexpected. ‘We have an increasingly sophisticated electorate who vote differently in different elections.’

‘London hasn’t had two elections on the same day for decades, so it will be fascinating to compare the results from four years ago [when the capital’s councils were last contested] and see if the turnout leads to different results.’

London will be a vital battleground for the Liberal Democrats and, because entire councils are being contested, will be a strong indicator of how good a night the party is having. Banks says the Lib-Lab coalitions of Brent and Southwark will be worth watching, as will Richmond, which the LibDems took from the Tories in 2006. Each borough already has a high-profile LibDem MP.

The LibDems typically poll higher in local elections than in national ones. But Banks, who is also an outgoing Lambeth councillor, argues that holding the elections on the same day won’t necessarily turn voters away from a popular LibDem council. The Tories won most of Devon’s parliamentary constituencies in 2005, while the LibDems won the battle for the council. In 2009, the council turned blue.

That Conservative gain was one of ten in last year’s local elections, which took place at the peak of voter outrage over parliamentary expenses. But the electorate chose the European polls on the same day to give the main parties a thrashing. The gains made by marginal parties, such as the UK Independence Party and the British National Party, were not replicated on the local stage.

Banks says the residual loathing will still be an issue a year on, but is not likely to be a factor for councillors. ‘I don’t think it affects the way people view their local councillors. I had a couple of enquiries at the time but people realise councillors get a lot less, and it’s all on the website if they want to look for it.’

But a Conservative insider is less optimistic. She tells Public Finance that the expenses scandal is still an issue, and it still comes up on the doorstep. ‘In other years you’ve been able to see them independently but these local elections can’t really be seen outside of the general election,’ she says.

It will suit the Conservatives to link local campaigns to national issues, given their lead in the opinion polls and the unpopularity of the Labour government, and the Tory campaign for the local elections will be strongly linked with the economy. Business rates underwent their five-yearly readjustment this month, and although some small businesses will benefit from a rate cut set out in March’s Budget, the Tories will argue that many more will be hit by the 1% rise in National Insurance contributions.

‘A lot of local companies and family-run businesses have gone to the wall under the recession and all this extra economic pressure from the government,’ the source says. ‘There’s been a real decline in community businesses – that’s the angle we’d take on the doorstep.’

The Tories will pour money into marginal constituencies, which will distort the picture in multiple ways, says Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies.

He identifies Coventry, Bradford and Wolverhampton as metropolitan councils that hang in the balance, even though only a third of seats are at stake. Bradford in particular, currently a Conservative minority council, is on a knife-edge with only modest gains by the LibDems and Labour required to bring about a change of administration.

Game adds that between a quarter and a fifth of all voters in simultaneous elections vote differently in different polls.

Council tax is one of the few local factors that influences the way people vote, but it has been politically neutralised by historically low increases this year. So reasons to cast a genuinely local vote are becoming increasingly scarce.

Despite this, another irony is that 2010 ought to be a big year for localism. Labour is commited to removing some funding ring-fences, following the Total Place pilot scheme, and the Tories plan to give councils a general power of competence.

Game says: ‘There is enough “small L localism” to provide encouragement but, put on top of that the recession, the almost universally anticipated cuts in public services, and the feeling is that localism is going to play itself out in making local government take the blame.’

Leslie agrees: ‘You’re electing a council to manage what could be a significantly reduced budget. These could be councillors you’re electing to wind down spending on crucial services.’

Although there are local elections on May 6, the Department for Communities and Local Government will continue to control the purse strings for much of council spending. Once again, it will be the results of another election that will do the most to shape the funding and policy landscape for councils in the years to come.

Did you enjoy this article?