Local elections 2016: out for the count

7 Apr 16
In an age of devolution, local elections are increasingly important. What is at stake when voters head to the polls next month?

Under the looming shadow of the EU referendum and the increasingly murky plans for devolution to councils, the local elections campaigns kicked off this week. National pundits may be engrossed with how the local elections reflect on the leadership (or lack thereof) of the national parties, but at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) we think local elections are far more important than that.

The local government elections on 5 May are the ones that really matter. These are the elections for the people who have a direct impact on our lives every day, the places where we live, the places where we go to school, work, play and shop.  However devolution progresses, these elections that will matter more and more as more decision-making power is exercised at the local level.

So what’s at stake as 124 councils hold elections on 5 May? There are more Labour controlled councils up for grabs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Labour is most at risk. Many councils elect by thirds – meaning only 1 in 3 seats are up for election – and in many councils, particularly in the Northwest, Labour have majorities sufficient to make it mathematically impossible for a change of control. However, even in councils where councillors are elected in thirds, there are 12 currently Labour controlled councils which could see a change if between one and four seats change hands. The most vulnerable councils are Bradford, Crawley, Redditch, Rossendale and Southampton, but since these councils are only out by thirds Labour would still be the largest party.

The Conservatives have fewer councils up for election this year, 39 compared to Labour’s 58, and they have fewer councils with slim margins. The ones to watch are Gloucester and Elmbridge. They’ve made the switch to all-out elections this year and the Conservatives have slim majorities.

It might be a very good year for “no overall control”. Some councils only need a seat or two to go from no party being in overall control to being either red or blue, but where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in Watford are vulnerable, they’d still be the largest party meaning coalition or minority leadership at the local level for many people. It will be interesting to see if the electorate has noticed the devolution agenda and whether that means they’ll want solid party leadership or whether they’ll want a more colorful assembly of stances.

In our years of covering local elections, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of presenting elections returns. Some councils do an amazing job of presenting winners and telling us which party is in control, but many council websites seem to ignore that local government is political. In a quick survey of councils holding elections this year, in many cases, it was difficult to tell which party holds control without adding it up. In cases of no overall control there was often no clear statement that the council was being run in coalition and who was in that coalition. On the night, it can be nigh on impossible to find out who has won and who has lost for individual seats. We think this is vital democratic information and that the electorate should know who has won and who has come close.

Therefore, this year LGiU is working in partnership with Democracy Club (with support from the Open Data Institute (ODI) and ODI Showcase grant funding) to build the UK’s first local elections results tracker to share this information as open data which can be used by anyone to find out the political trends within and across local areas. Some councils are sharing their results with us directly, but we also need an army of volunteers to help us collect results. To find more and to help us open up elections data, visit our Out for the Count project page and sign up.

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