Local Government’s Big Night

Jason Lowther

On Thursday, over 17,000 candidates will be asking their fellow citizens to elect them to around 5,000 roles as their representatives.  Although there have been serious concerns about the wisdom of running elections in the middle of a pandemic, as we explored in this blog in January, it looks like local government has again risen to the challenge and will deliver elections as required.  It looks like a big night for local government, with some important trends that might affect politics nationally in coming years.  Will Northern voters return to Labour?  Will England’s Combined Authorities see a shift in power?  How will voters react to alternative voting systems?  What will be the impact of greater postal voting?  And will we see more influence from smaller parties?

Will the Red Wall start to repair or crumble further?  Labour is defending seven councils where the 2019 general election suggests a swing of over 6% to the Conservatives, according to analysis by the GuardianResearch by Lord Robert Hayward (Con) suggests that the Conservatives are fielding many more candidates in Northern areas than in the last local elections in 2017: at least doubling their candidates in Doncaster and Rotherham and fielding more than 40% extra candidates in Durham. 

Combined Authorities could see some significant shifts in power.  Whilst Labour has a strong majority in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region, other CA contests look much closer.  Tees Valley CA has a straight two-way fight between red and blue, with Conservatives defending a 2.3% majority. But the closest fight is probably in the West Midlands, where Conservative Andy Street had less than a 1% majority last time. 

A range of voting systems are operating.  In England, Combined Authority (Metro) Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners are being elected on the ‘supplementary vote’ system rather than the traditional First Past The Post (FPTP) system used for MPs.  With the ‘single transferable vote’ system in Scottish Councils and NI, and the ‘additional member system’ in London and (all adults aged over 16) in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, there must be a question mark on how long MPs can hold out against a more democratic electoral system for Westminster.

As required by the Combined Authority (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017, in CA areas each registered voter has received a package of information on the election process and each of the candidates.  I was interested to read the West Midlands CA booklet, which provided a clear explanation of the ‘supplementary vote’ system used in these elections.  It also included two-page statements from each of the candidates which I felt was a huge improvement on the usual random arrival of leaflets through the letterbox.  In a very Covid-Era vignette, the order in which the candidates appeared in the booklet was decided after the close of nominations by the Council’s Monitoring Officer drawing lots, witnessed by the Electoral Commission on a Teams Call, with the video of the call then provided to the candidates. 

Postal votes may be particularly important in these elections, with around 90,000 people requesting their postal vote on the deadline day itself.  In some areas most votes might be cast in this way before election day, fortunately for the Conservatives ahead of the current ‘cash for curtains‘ controversy.  It will be interesting to see whether this new method becomes the ‘new normal’ for many voters, replacing their usual stroll to the ballot box in the Great British weather.

We are seeing a rise in smaller parties.  Beyond the big four parties, six smaller parties are fielding 60 or more candidates at these elections: Reform UK, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the UK Independence Party, the Freedom Alliance, the Social Democratic Party and The For Britain Movement.  Research by Democracy Club, based on Statements of Persons Nominated published by English councils on 8-9 April 2021, shows these six parties contesting at least 1% of available seats.  As Colin Copus demonstrated, smaller parties not only provide voters with electoral choice, they can also influence the agenda of larger parties and can shift boundaries in political thinking.  Although Westminster MPs continue to hoard power in the big two parties through the FPTP system, across the UK we are seeing a much wider range of political options for voters.

We might not know the results of the May elections for a couple of days given the difficulties in managing counts in the context of the pandemic, but when they come they could be significant not just for local people but also for our future politics nationwide.

Jason Lowther is the Director of INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he worked for the West Midlands Combined Authority, led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

[edited 9.5.21 to delete quoted voting odds post election results]

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