Another year – and another set of local elections. Are the key messages a reflection of the performance of the parliamentary parties or a genuine reflection of local politics? What have we learned from this year’s set of elections?
..and the winner is….
This isn’t another story about how the Conservatives failed to fail as expected and Labour failed to overwhelmingly sweep away the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats failed to disappoint. Yes, some Labour party apparatchiks may have over-egged it a bit with the predictions of a red tide across central London, but really last week’s local election was a re-settling into old trends – perhaps pre-referendum, pre-coalition, pre-crash trends. Even where Conservatives lost power in Kingston and in Richmond it was a return to old and familiar patterns of local voting. And while yes, some councils did change control, it was more to and fro than major upheaval on a national scale.
But of course, we don’t actually vote at a national scale. We don’t even vote at a local authority scale. We vote in wards or divisions and these are the building blocks for council control. Some of the blocks are more fungible than others. I happen to live much-discussed Wandsworth, so to be truthful I never really thought the Conservative council would be toppled, and in fact I think Labour did surprisingly well. What didn’t surprise me is that my ward elected three Labour councillors – at that very local level and in conjunction with the influence of national politics and the very local level politics I ‘knew’ my ward was pretty unswingable. But I’d struggle to know this about other wards in other council areas.
Right now we’re in a state which looks like status quo plus – a solidifying hold on some councils. We can look fairly easily at which councils have thin majorities or no overall control, but it’s much harder to easily find data on the swingable blocks – the contestable seats. Our friends at Democracy Club have been working on this. But it takes time to pull all the data together. Over the long weekend 90% of council results have been entered (but not verified), some of this was done automatically where councils have published ‘machine readable’ data. But much of this has to be done by hand as much of the candidate data is, which can introduce error. Without this data, though, it is much, much harder to know where turnout is low and where representation can change. Good local journalism used to be the way that people might know this, but now we need other ways for citizens to find this information. We already know that there is press interest from both national and local press, but they need it in a timely fashion. Political parties do have this information, of course, but it needs to be in the hands of citizens.
For the last few years we have been encouraging councils to share electoral information in a better format. Each year we see some significant progress in terms of reporting information, but still not all councils are making it easy enough for citizens to find basic electoral information from the front page of their websites. Elections are a big deal, councils are political organisations, let’s not be shy about it.
…I’d like to thank…
In the run up the local elections and the building excitement, we talk a lot about the unsung heroes of local democracy. Local activists and the candidates who contest the elections, electoral officers and the army of people who man polling stations and count the ballots. Let us not forget, too the nearly unknowable amount of people who get up bright and early on election day to open up the school assembly hall or church reception to provide polling places. Without these people there would be no elections and all of them have a vital role in protecting our democracy.
And, of course, there are the democracy activists, such as Democracy Club and their host of volunteers who womble out the elections data, the people who work tirelessly to support better information for voters about who they can vote for and where they can vote. At the LGiU we like to think that we, too, contribute to supporting better local democracy with our coverage, too. This year we were helped by Nathan Bookbinder from East Herts, Kieran Elliott from Wiltshire, and Scott Butterfield from Blackpool – all LGiU member councils. They trekked to London and stayed up with us overnight to help us cover 100 returns. Thank you!