With the local elections upon us, many will wonder what, if anything, voting in such elections achieves and if there’s really any point in bothering. Local election turnouts tend to be quite low when compared to a general election and often favour those in opposition on the national stage, but decisions made by local councillors often have a more direct impact on the more ordinary aspects of our day to day lives than is often fully appreciated.
County or city halls are often the ‘proving ground’ for those who wish to go into national politics and many a great figure on the national stage gained their ‘spurs’ dealing with sometimes controversial local issues. Debates in council chambers can be just as heated as those in the House of Commons and issues such as planning, housing, local services and policing can be just as contentious as broader issues of national importance.
Although candidates mostly stand for the main national parties, voters often have a keener sense of how a particular candidate views a very local matter. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for people to vote for one party at the local elections and another in a general election. There are also vastly more independent candidates who will be likely to get elected than we see at national elections – plus hopefuls from very localised parties – Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall for example.
The language doesn’t change hugely from national elections, mainly because the actual process of the election itself is not much different – we all trot down to the polling station and cast our vote into a ballot box. Candidates will canvass for your vote and the count will be overseen by a returning officer who announces the winners. Aside from in Scotland and Northern Ireland, these are first past the post elections.
In contrast to a general election, the term ‘no overall control’ will again be heard. Coalitions in local government are commonplace and council operations under such arrangements are educational when it comes to studying this form of government. More horse trading in the council chamber and consensus finding is needed to make progress on issues. Some argue that this results in local stagnation and are critical of local government in general because of this. Others argue that consensus politics avoids extreme approaches to local issues and council tax payers cash is spent more wisely. The debate rages.
So, what can we expect from this year’s local elections? Clearly, the one issue on many people’s minds is Brexit, but with some arguing that the likely forthcoming European Elections may turn into a de-facto further referendum on Brexit, it seems reasonable that the focus of this vexing issue is not going to be played out in the local elections to the same extent. The new Brexit Party isn’t fielding any candidates, so the most obvious option for those disgruntled with Parliament’s handling of Brexit will be to stay at home.
This could lead to some good results for the other key parties – the Liberal Democrats in particular are well organised locally and could again poll some good results. The same can be said for Labour in many areas and both parties continue to make steady inroads in local government – Labour and the Lib Dems gained an additional 79 and 75 councillors respectively in the 2018 elections and will want to build on this. Independent candidates could do very well from the ‘none of the above’ vote and if the Conservative vote doesn’t turn out, we could see major shifts in local control (although some candidates are still running unopposed).
Also, don’t forget that local elections favour local issues, so a candidate with a strong and consistent local profile defending a public service is still likely to do well – whatever party they represent.
Far from being low key and boring, many eyes will be on this year’s local elections, particularly given the pressure on the Prime Minister from within her own party. But with results trickling in well into the day after the vote, it will take some time for the full picture of local changes to emerge. Then the analysis of what it all means will begin.