The latest round of local government elections is almost upon us. Tomorrow, elections will be held for 248 English local councils, 6 directly elected English mayors, and all 11 councils in Northern Ireland. Close to 9,000 seats will be contested, and with the exception of a few cases of boundary changes or new councils, they are the same seats last contested on general election day in 2015.
Here are my thoughts on the factors most likely to influence voters and election outcomes.
- Turnout will likely be lower than in 2015. As the last local government election covering these areas took place on the day of a general election, there was an exceptionally high turnout. Let’s look at one of my former employers – Thanet District Council – as an example, where the turnout was 72% compared with 42% in the previous election (2011). I think we can expect a return to something like the 2011 figure this time round, although general weariness and cynicism with our politicians may drive that even lower. Coinciding with the general election also resulted in some unusual results in 2015 with the incumbent national party (Conservatives) gaining seats. Typically, local elections are a place to register a protest vote, with the party in government losing seats, but in general election years voters are more likely to produce a ‘downballot’ effect. So this year, the Conservatives could be particularly vulnerable to voters wanting to send a message to Westminster, and therefore bring many of their marginals into play.
- National issues are significant in local elections, with Brexit dwarfing all others. It’s not easy to predict the impact of Brexit on voting patterns, but possible outcomes include the resurgence of pro-Brexit parties in strong leave-voting areas. There are risks and opportunities for all parties in leave heartlands and in remain areas too. There are too many variables to make a solid prediction, but I expect to see some surprising shifts in some councils as a result of Brexit intransigence.
- Austerity could also be a significant issue. It remains to be seen to what extent the electorate will be influenced by austerity. There is no question that local government budgets have been slashed over the past 10 years, and councils have had to be creative in meeting demand with fewer resources. Even if the electorate considers the issue of local government financing to be important, do voters think that changing their local leaders will make things better given that decisions are often taken in Whitehall?
- Local interest parties might unsettle two-party politics in some areas. Since January around 20 new parties have emerged – many with a ‘local first’ agenda. Examples include the Andover Alliance which plans to field 20 candidates in Test Valley to challenge the Conservatives, and Tonbridge and Malling, where the Independent Alliance will be fielding four candidates on the hyper-local issue of the Borough Green ‘garden city’. The impact these parties have in unsettling the traditional two-party politics (or in Tonbridge and Malling, one party) will be fascinating to see.
Finally, it is interesting to note that some councils have started to talk about their ability to deliver better outcomes for less. An outcomes focus – as reflected in the IMPOWER INDEX and our report Which Councils Are Best? – is starting to become part of the public discussion around local government. We believe that focusing on outcomes in order to improve lives and reduce costs is achievable, is the right thing to do, and is the best way for local authorities to survive on the budgets they do have available.
It would be fantastic to see future local elections fought on councils’ records of achieving outcomes for people whilst managing their budgets, rather than as a sideshow to national issues. Here’s hoping.
IMPOWER is sponsoring The MJ’s 2019 local election map. Copies will be sent out with the MJ later in May, or you can request a copy by emailing us.