The May local elections – who’s voting whereBy Chris Game on 23 April 2013
If you work for an organisation called the Institute of Local Government Studies, people tend to assume you know pretty well everything worth knowing about at least this country’s local government. Each April, therefore, university colleagues will sidle up to you, and civic-minded members of the public will cold-call, all wanting to know whether they’ve got a vote in the forthcoming local elections. They know there are some elections every year, and that our electoral system and cycle seem designed intentionally to confuse mere voters, but surely at least we understand it and can help them. This year, happily, we can – well, in the vast majority of cases, anyway – but it’s very much the exception. Let me briefly explain both main parts of that sentence, using for simplicity’s sake English authorities only, before going on to a preview of exactly who will have the opportunity to vote where on Thursday 2nd May.
All councillors in the UK are elected for 4-year terms, so we have a 4-year electoral cycle, in which, for convenience, we’ll call 2009, 2013 and 2017 the fourth year. In Year 1 – 2010, 2014 – there are elections for the 36 metropolitan boroughs, who have to elect their councils by thirds; for the roughly one-third of unitary and shire district councils who have chosen to; for the 32 London boroughs, who are required to have all-out or whole-council elections; plus a few elected mayors. About 160 authorities involved in total. Year 2 – 2011, 2015 – is the big year, when the national media have a better excuse than usual for pretending that local government is staging a mini-General Election for their benefit. There are the met boroughs again, all 201 districts (even those choosing all-out elections can’t choose the year), most but not all unitaries (don’t ask – I told you it was designed to baffle), and a few more mayors. About 280 authorities in all, and most of the English electorate outside London. Year 3 should be a near-repeat of Year 1, with Londoners electing the Mayor and Assembly, instead of borough councils, plus, from 2016 and assuming they still exist, Police and Crime Commissioners.
So, unless you happen to know off-hand how the 201 shire districts and 56 unitary authorities have exercised their choice to elect all their councillors in one go or a third at a time, you also, when confronted by the ‘Do I have a vote this year?’ inquirer, have two options. You can either consult the compendious Municipal Yearbook, should you have one about your person, or politely suggest that they contact their council themselves. After all of which, Year 4 is a breeze: just the 27 remaining county councils, a few all-out unitaries, a couple of mayors, and this year a stray from Wales. And that’s it – not just in England, but in the whole UK. Which sounds as if it might represent something of a let-off for any party struggling in the opinion polls – but in this case almost certainly doesn’t.
Although I do have, I promise you, several more artistic offerings on my office walls, on the door there hangs – courtesy of the Local Government Chronicle and incomparable local elections experts and longstanding PSA members, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher – a poster mapping the political control of all GB councils. An inset map on the poster focuses solely on the county councils, and it seemed a good place to start.
Ignoring the added symbols for the moment, this potentially multi-coloured map comprised, when it was produced last May, at the start of the current political year, just the one colour – blue for Conservative majority control – and some white spaces. The latter, moreover, actually dilute the true extent of one-party domination among these big, upper-tier councils which, it should be remembered, are responsible for roughly 90% of local government revenue spending in their respective areas, compared to the 10% contributed by the 201 lower-tier districts. For, with one exception, the apparently blank spaces are not non-Conservative controlled counties, but single-tier metropolitan and unitary authorities. That exception, the one county where in May 2009 the Conservatives didn’t take majority control, is Cumbria, where they are comfortably the largest party but lead an interesting power-sharing administration of Conservatives, Labour and an Independent, with the Lib Dems in official opposition.
Those 2009 elections took place when Labour’s standing nationally was about as low as it could get. The Government was in disarray, there were leadership plots against Gordon Brown, some ministers were in trouble over their expenses, others were resigning like proverbial rats from an apparently sinking ship – and that was in the week before the elections. In the pre-election opinion polls the Conservatives were 16 points ahead: 39% to Labour’s 23% and the Lib Dems’ 19%. As they generally do, the election results reflected the polls, and the Conservatives, already the dominant party in this tier of local government, gained blanket control by taking Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire from Labour, Warwickshire from Labour minority control, and Devon and Somerset from the Liberal Democrats.
Today, the voting intention opinion polls are not quite as bad for the Conservatives as they were in 2009 for Labour, but they’re hardly encouraging. They show the Conservatives trailing Labour by about 11 points, with 30% to 41%, while their Lib Dem coalition partners are battling it out with UKIP on around 12%. UKIP is the big known unknown in these elections. They’ll be far more visible than ever before in local elections, with candidates in nearly three-quarters of all seats – over five times as many as in 2009, almost as many as the Lib Dems, and in several counties more than Labour. Moreover, no one can be sure where their votes will predominantly come from, and which of the major parties they’ll damage most. They shouldn’t prevent Labour regaining most, if not all, of the counties they lost in 2009, but beyond that, it’s mainly guesswork.
The added stars on the map identify the 8 unitary authorities holding elections. Five are from the most recent generation of unitaries and were until 2009 upper-tier county councils in the two-tier part of the structure. Their extraordinary scale – for what is the supposedly local government in their areas – earns them the biggest stars on the map. Two – Shropshire and Wiltshire – are currently solidly blue for majority Conservative control, and Durham is equally solidly Labour. Labour also controlled neighbouring Northumberland for its last ten years as a county council, and must hope at least to regain its position as largest party and end the present minority Lib Dem administration. Cornwall’s last years as a county council were spent under majority Lib Dem control, but the Conservatives now lead a coalition administration with the Independents and may have their sights set on the overall majority that they’ve never so far achieved.
The Isle of Wight was also a county council until 1995 and also in its final years controlled by the Lib Dems. The party today, though, is reduced to just four councillors, and it is the Conservatives who have a majority. Bristol, even by UK standards, is an electoral oddity. The Council voted recently to switch from election by thirds to all-out elections, coinciding with the election of the city’s mayor. But not, sadly, until 2016, which means that, for barely comprehensible reasons, it is the single authority this year to be electing only a third of its council. This necessarily restricts the scope for change, but there could still be sufficient for the Lib Dems to lose their minority control and for Labour to regain its position as largest party.
All of which leaves just the odds and sods. The smiley faces on the map are the two elected mayors hoping for re-election in Doncaster and North Tyneside. Both boroughs are traditionally Labour and have majority Labour councils. But, reflecting how mayoral elections are often seen by voters as opportunities to protest against precisely such long-term one-party rule, both currently have non-Labour mayors heading completely non-Labour cabinets: Linda Arkley (Conservative) in North Tyneside and Peter Davies (English Democrat turned Independent) in Doncaster. Even at the best of times, these scenarios would be problematic, and for local government times have rarely seemed worse. In North Tyneside the Mayor’s budget was recently voted down and Labour’s alternative adopted in its place, while in Doncaster one of the first jobs of a new mayor may be to hand over the council’s much criticised child protection services to an independent outside body. Arkley faces only Labour and Lib Dem challengers, Davies an assortment of nine, and, if nothing else, the two elections will be an interesting test of the benefits or otherwise of incumbency (see Nagatomi, 2005; Nagatomi, 2012; - Rallings et al., 2012.)
The Welsh elections are for a new Isle of Anglesey council – postponed from last year, following a period in which the former council had to be replaced by appointed commissioners and a programme of recovery and democratic renewal undertaken. And the barely visible little star off the coast of Cornwall is, of course, the Isles of Scilly. The 21-member, entirely Independent, council can legitimately claim to provide a range of services not just equivalent to but, as a surviving water and sewage authority, greater than that of any mainland unitary authority. They’re not, strictly speaking, a unitary, but they’re counted as one by the Office for National Statistics, and on St Mary’s at least, if not perhaps on all the ‘Off Islands’, they too will be voting on 2nd May.
In summary, then, even this year, when there are as few authorities involved in local elections as there are ever likely to be under the present arrangements, the picture is still more complicated and confusing than it need be. Which is why there is a view – shared by, among others, the Electoral Commission, the members of the 2007 Councillors Commission, and me – that voters’ lives would be easier and their turnout at least a smidgeon higher, if the 4-year local electoral cycle were uniform across the whole of England, and based on all-out or ‘whole council’ elections for all councils being held on the same ‘Local Elections Day’ (LED) (see Electoral Commission (2004), The Cycles of Local Government Elections in England; Councillors Commission (2007), Representing the Future (Recommendation 18).
There could be one LED either every four years, or, if it were felt preferable, every other year: with LED1 being for voters to elect members of their ‘most immediate’ councils – districts, unitaries, London and metropolitan boroughs – and LED2 for those in two-tier areas to elect their county councils and the London Assembly. Neither LED would coincide and be forced to share the stage with a General or European Parliament election – which has been the fate of each of the past four sets of county council elections.
There would be several benefits. The election campaign, both by the political parties and in the media, would have to give greater attention than at present to local government issues and the performance of local councils and councillors, which should in turn raise the public’s awareness and understanding, and in some their inclination to vote. Just as importantly, all voters in the same type of local authority would have the same number of opportunities to elect their councillors, and, even if they chose not to use those votes, they’d at least know each year whether they had a vote not to use. At present, voters in a shire district that elects its council by thirds, with elections in three years out of four, can have three times the number of voting opportunities as those in a neighbouring district with all-out elections. There seems, to me at least, something seriously unbalanced about a system of local democracy in which ministers think uniform frequency should apply to bin collection but not to voting opportunity.