Situational irony, coronavirus and the French local elections

Chris Game

One of Birmingham’s most enterprising theatres is one of its smallest, the Old Joint Stock – a studio theatre above a pub that was once the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank – which found itself an early and particularly unfortunate Covid-19 victim. For the Government’s March 16th announcement of the effective closure of all theatres came literally on the eve of the OJS’s five-day run of The White Plague, the scheduled second leg of a European tour, following a successful launch at Greenwich Theatre the previous week.

The title derives from an IRA-era sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert, whose vengeful Irish molecular biologist creates a particularly discriminating (in both senses) plague, in that, while men are the carriers, it kills only women. The feature of this Ferodo Bridges theatre production, though, is that audience members are given masks or goggles that ‘white out’ their vision, thereby supposedly immersing them in the world of the blinded victims.

I was sorry to miss such a topical example of immersive theatre, but found some consolation in its ill-timed cancellation providing a rather classier example of situational irony than the standard fire station burning down, or the Facebook complaint about how useless Facebook is.

Which was neat, as the same week offered a further, and more democratically pertinent, Covid-19 example of situational irony in France’s municipal elections – partly in the results, but mainly in their happening at all.

President Macron faced a dilemma. French municipal and mayoral elections happen only every six years. This year’s, therefore, would be the first since he became President in 2017, thanks rather amazingly to his newly created LREM party, La République En Marche!, winning a substantial majority in the National Assembly elections.

This, therefore, should have been Macron’s big chance to establish a grassroots power base. In Paris City Hall, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, notwithstanding a radical manifesto – including a referendum on Airbnb, plans for a “100 percent bicycle” city centre, and a municipal police force comprising 50% women – looked vulnerable, and there were early visions of scores of LREM mayors and thousands of councillors across the country.

That’s right, thousands – this is France, with over 900,000 candidates contesting seats in over 35,000 villages, towns and cities, though excluding this time, rather sadly, the 757 British citizens currently serving as municipal councillors – which, incidentally, is nearly 300 more than in all seven West Midlands metropolitan boroughs combined.

Macron himself, however, was at less than peak popularity, following months of protests and strikes – by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement against rising fuel taxes, then by rail and health care workers, teachers and others against under-funding and pension reforms. Added to which, LREM’s Paris mayoral hopeful had had to abandon his candidacy in a sex video scandal – on Valentine’s Day!

And now France was showing the second highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Europe. Yet, having himself just shut down restaurants, museums, big sporting events, most stores, and the whole education system, Macron announced that the coming Sunday’s first round of the two-round municipal elections would go ahead – with strict sanitary conditions imposed, naturally.

The situational irony: the one man who could have saved his very personal party from a probable serious electoral thrashing, by doing the apparently responsible, expected thing and without any loss of face, chose not to.

Having merely a global citizen’s concern with French public health, I was actually quite pleased. Partly because French local elections are always fun to write about, but especially following the outcome of our own head of government’s Flip-Flop Friday.

In the morning of, yes, unlucky Friday 13th, Number 10 insisted – “driven by the experts”, of course – that May 7th’s local, mayoral, and Police & Crime Commissioner elections would go ahead, in defiance of the Electoral Commission’s postponement recommendation and Electoral Administrators’ warning of possibly insufficient polling station staff.

But then, literally within hours, all elections were off – and not, as proposed by the Electoral Commission, until the autumn, but for a year.

What makes French local elections fun? Well, not least – and making Macron’s go-ahead seem even more extraordinary than Johnson’s dithering – because there are just so many of them and they really are so genuinely local.

England’s local government currently comprises 341 principal councils, of which just Rutland, fractionally, has a population of under 40,000. By contrast, over 98% of France’s 35,000+ communes have under 20,000, and over half under 500.

Voting – in larger communes at least – is by proportional representation, potentially over two rounds, and mainly through party lists, which Parity Laws decree must comprise as many women as men, listed alternately. Mayors are indirectly elected: voters electing the council, the council then electing the mayor.

Most impressive attribute of French local elections, though, is that voters like them, and like voting in them, much more than in National Assembly elections. Evidence Exhibit 1: in reporting turnout in even local elections, the French way is to cite not the turnout percentage but ‘Abstentions’ – and then to worry when in 2014 the 36.45% abstentions (they’re also very precise) constituted “a record high” .

Exhibit 2: my favourite English language election preview, bemoaning how coronavirus was “eclipsing the elections in national conversation”, because “87% of the French people are discussing the coronavirus, while ONLY 52% are discussing the upcoming elections” (my emphasis). The last time over half an English electorate were caught discussing upcoming local elections being …?

Nevertheless, there clearly was concern that, even with voters queuing three feet apart, their own pens poised to sign the register, and voting machines wiped with hydro-alcoholic gel, polling stations were almost custom-made germ-spreading venues, particularly for older people.

Still, however, they recorded an estimated abstention rate of “up to 56%”, and a turnout therefore of around 45% – immediately seized on by the media as an “historic low”. In context, though, the last time turnout in our metropolitan district elections, for example, touched 45% in a non-General Election year was 1990 – poll tax year.  The recent average is 33%.

Macron’s decision was surprising, avoidable, predictably politically costly, and – given the second round’s almost immediate cancellation – probably wrong. It was not, though, without its integrity.

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

What if December 12th were repeated in the May mayorals?

Chris Game

I’m not unrealistic.  I didn’t expect the Queen in the few hundred words written for her Queen’s Speech to chatter on that much about local government and councils – and she didn’t.  I did think, though, they might get some attention in the 150-page Background Briefing Notes.  But, no.  In the literally brief note on English Devolution (pp.109-10), ‘councils’ per se aren’t mentioned.  The search did, however, make me realise how crowded it’s going to be out there, as “each part of the country” gets “to decide its own destiny”.

The Government “remains committed” to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway, and, I think, the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly aren’t going anywhere soon.  Indeed, they may well be hoping to get their hands on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural and Investment Funds. And quite possibly too on the PM’s own £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with, for starters, 100 Town Deal Boards, chaired “where appropriate” by someone from the private sector.

Then there are the UK Government agencies that Johnson wants to relocate out of London, with their existing civil servants or any who aren’t “super-talented weirdo” enough to pass the Dominic Cummings test.

The one democratic element of this increasingly crowded world that does receive more than a passing mention in the Briefing Notes are Mayoral Combined Authorities (CAs) and City Region Mayors, with talk of increasing the number of mayors and doing more devo deals. There weren’t many stats in this section, but one did catch my eye: “37 per cent of residents in England, including almost 50 per cent in the North, are now served by city region mayors with powers and money to prioritise local issues.”

With CA mayoral elections coming up in early May, I did a few quick sums. The current party split among the nine elected mayors, including London, is 5-4 to Labour.  The population split, though, is close to 3-1, with Mayor Andy Street’s West Midlands contributing over half the Conservative total.  And Street’s victory over Labour’s Siôn Simon in May 2017 was knife-edge: by 0.7% of the 523,000 votes cast.

I sense you’re ahead of me.  If, in the coming May elections, West Midlands voters were to return a Labour mayor, leaving Conservative mayors governing, say, barely one in eight of that 37% of residents, would a Conservative PM still be as enthusiastic about devolution to mayoral CAs?  We know for near-certain that Theresa May wouldn’t have been, but Johnson, as on most things, is less predictable. 

Anyway, it seemed worth asking: what would happen in the May mayoral elections, which include London this time, if everyone voted just as they did in December’s General Election?  Happily, Centre for Cities’ Simon Jeffrey got there first, so the stats are his, the interpretation mine.

First, though, a quick reminder of the broader context of those 2017 mayoral elections, and what’s happened since.  When Andy Street launched his bid for the West Midlands mayoralty, and even when he was officially selected as Conservative candidate, there looked like being only five of these new CA mayors.

Moreover, all five – Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield City Regions, Tees Valley, and West Midlands – might easily, given their borough councils’ political make-ups, have produced Labour ‘metro mayors’.  Whereupon, it seems likely that, to say the least, Prime Ministerial enthusiasm for serious devolution to metro mayoral CAs would have waned somewhat.

However, things changed. Sheffield’s election, following a dispute over the inclusion of Derbyshire local authorities, was postponed until 2018, and two far less metropolitan (and more Conservative-inclined) CAs were established – West of England (Bristol) and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – just in time for the 2017 elections. 

With Tees Valley also going Conservative, Prime Minister May saw an initially possible 0-5 redwash turn into a remarkable 4-2 triumph – as reported on this blog. The political merits and possibilities of devolution, particularly to the West Midlands – bearing in mind that Labour overwhelmingly controlled Birmingham Council and formed the largest party group in five of the other six boroughs – suddenly seemed much more obvious.

Since then, though, the pendulum has swung. A reconfigured Sheffield CA and new North of Tyne CA have both elected Labour mayors, evening up the CA party balance at 4-4, but giving a score among the now ‘Big 5’ metros (populations over 1.3 million) of 4-1 to Labour, including Greater London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Jeffrey’s sums show that Mayor Khan would be re-elected easily, likewise Labour’s Steve Rotheram in Liverpool.  In Greater Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham would be re-elected, but with a considerably reduced majority.  And the collapsing ‘red wall’ would have more than doubled Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen’s majority in Tees Valley.

And so to the West Midlands, which also saw plenty of “Red wall turning blue”, “No such thing any more as a Labour safe seat” headlines. It felt as if the Conservative vote had to be ahead, and it was … but by under 3,000 out of 1.18 million, or 0.2%! 

Yes, even replicating the Conservatives’ most decisive electoral win for a generation, it could be that tight.  And, if it were Labour’s eventual candidate who edged it, that would see Labour metro mayors as the elected heads of government in London and all four largest city region CAs, representing nearly a third of the English population. ‘Everything still to play for’ seems an understatement.

Chris Game - picChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The local and mayoral elections – and the significance of that 4-2 scoreline

Chris Game

Local elections present the INLOGOV blog with an annual dilemma. They’re the heartbeat of democratic local government, its lifeblood, or something equally vital. So, they must be covered and key results namechecked. But INLOGOV’s not a news service, and, with so many Friday counts nowadays and results instantly available on social media, you have somehow to strike a balance.

The first part of this blog, therefore, will give the headlines, from a strictly local government perspective. That means, first, changes in council control; second, changes in councillor numbers; and third, excluding one minor indulgence, no conjecturing whatever about implications for that other election.

Conservatives, of course, were the big winners, almost everywhere. So, to be perverse, we’ll start with a titbit of consolatory Labour news, from the seven unitary polls. Durham it still controls, and Northumberland – thanks to the Conservative candidate in the potentially decisive ward literally picking the short straw – stays technically hung, though no longer under Labour minority control. After mass gains from particularly Independents, Conservatives are the largest party in Cornwall and back in control in the Isle of Wight.

Of the 27 non-metropolitan counties, even before last Thursday Labour had majority control in only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and shared minority control in Cumbria and Lancashire. Conservatives are now in control of the first and last of these and are easily the largest party in the other two. Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire all swung from minority to majority Conservative control.

As was widely, and even gleefully, reported, UKIP too lost heavily, its single gain in Lancashire being rather more than counterbalanced by at least double-figure losses in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex.

Turning to overall councillor numbers, the Conservatives gained what for a party in national government was an almost mind-boggling 563 seats: 319 in England, 164 in Scotland, far more than doubling their previous representation, and 80 in Wales – the latter, according to more knowledgeable commentators than I, putting the party on course (in that election I’m not mentioning) for its first nationwide Welsh victory since the Earl of Derby managed it in 1859.

Labour’s car crash involved losing net 382 councillors – bringing to 15 years the period since, in terms of councillor numbers, it was the largest party in GB local government – UKIP 145, and the Liberal Democrats what must have been a deeply dispiriting 42.

And so to what, for the immediate future of at least England’s sub-national government, were surely last week’s most important elections, and collectively way up there amongst the most mind-boggling: those of our first(?) six metro mayors. I can hardly imagine the odds you could have got, even a week ago, on four of the six being Conservative. However, it’s there in my table, in blue and pink. And, whatever one’s reservations about elected mayors and the whole limited, top-down, Treasury-driven, fiscally minimal devolution model, I’d suggest that nothing over the past 11 months has given it a greater boost.

MetroMayoralresults-3

The first several months of May’s premiership she spent almost visibly dithering over what to do about the severed agenda of devo deals and elected mayors she’d inherited from the axed George Osborne and shuffled ex-Communities Secretary, Greg Clark. Then – I simplify enormously – two things happened.

First, Andy Street decided he’d stop being MD of the John Lewis Partnership and run as a Conservative for the biggest and politically most attractive metro mayoralty of all, the West Mids – in time to be adopted, and then paraded with May at the party’s October Birmingham conference.

At the same time, something else helped change her view that one big reason why metro mayors were a bad idea was that most, if not all, would be Labour. Several of Clark’s nine envisaged metro-mayoral city regions, during the May-created devo vacuum, started for various reasons to lose interest or patience and drop out – West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, the North East – and the political arithmetic began to alter. To the extent that I suggested she could realistically conceive of the first set of mayoral elections producing three Conservative and three Labour mayors. Even for the sake of an eye-catching headline, though, I’d never have contemplated 4-2.

And, as the table shows, three of the four results, after the two counts involved in the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system, were extremely close. Street’s majority was exceptionally so – 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast, to be precise. This in itself would weaken any victor’s mandate, particularly when achieved in what, by the standards of anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, were very low-turnout elections.

The SV system was adopted for mayoral elections almost by accident, and many consider that the more familiar Alternative Vote – that we rejected for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum – would be fitter for this particular purpose. Its defenders, though, claim it has worked well in London, is voter-friendly, produces clear winners, and is accepted by all concerned.

My table would suggest otherwise, at least on its first showing. In the West Midlands, in a hugely significant election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so. They were either not used at all, or were cast for candidates who, highly predictably in this instance, had already been eliminated after the first count.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that large numbers even of the small minority who turned out didn’t fully comprehend the system they were voting in – for which the Electoral Commission must be held chiefly responsible. As also for the huge disparities in candidate expenditure permitted before the ‘regulated’ campaign period, which again in such a closely run race can and will be alleged to have been decisive. In short, the Commission, as well as the mayors themselves, have plenty of work to do in what is only a three-year term to 2020.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The metro mayoral dilemma: how to big-up without overselling

Chris Game

Well, that was fun – the Daily Mail’s high-speed impression of the Grand Old Duke of York. In Monday’s first edition we were marched to the top of the hill, to glimpse a vista of a snap May 4th General Election, a Prime Ministerial Brexit mandate, and a three-figure Conservative Commons majority stretching way into the distance. And by the lunchtime edition we’d been marched down again, accompanied by much harrumphing about unfounded rumour-mongering.

With not calling an early election being among the few subjects on which Theresa May has been utterly consistent, the surprise would have been if she had. And my sole reason for raising it here is that, whatever its macro-political effects, a synchronous General Election would have significantly increased the likely turnout in the six metro mayoral elections, and consequently enhanced the profile, legitimacy and general political clout of both the new office and its first incumbents – all currently at a premium.

In the metropolitan West Midlands, then, we’re not going to see on May 4th the probably 60-65% turnout that was the 2015 General Election figure. That would have enabled the new mayor, in his or her meetings with ministers, to claim to be representing not only nearly 2 million electors, but perhaps 1 million who had actually participated in their election. Which in turn would make it that smidgen harder for the centre to cut local funding and resist further devolution, rationalising that few vote for and therefore care about their local government.

But now that’s off, what can we expect? A former student asked me recently – more or less a true story! – what the average turnout had been in all mayoral elections since Ken Livingstone’s first election as London Mayor in 2000. 38.7%, I told him, or thereabouts. He was surprised – and less by the confirmation that I was indeed one of those seriously sad people who know such things than by the figure itself. And of course he was right to be.

He fancied putting a bet (in the low-20s) on the percentage turnout on May 4th, when in the four metropolitan and unitary Combined Authorities (CAs) – West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and Tees Valley – there are no other significant elections taking place. This year in the electoral cycle is shire county year, which should boost the mayoral turnout a bit in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and West of England, but won’t help the others.

Mayoral%20election%20turnouts.JPG

If only I’d had my table with me, I could have shown my ex-student how that overall 38.7% masked the relatively respectable turnouts when mayoral polls had coincided with other elections, and particularly a so-called ‘first-order’ national (General) election, when voters reckon considerably more is at stake.

But when ‘only’ a mayoralty has been the prize – merely the elected political leadership of one’s city, town or borough – turnouts have been almost unexceptionally feeble. And those have been in established local authorities, familiar to electors, rather than new, huge, amorphous, unelected bodies that most voters have barely heard of.

And the situation gets worse. Most voters with at least some awareness of metro mayors fondly imagine these new politicians foisted upon us will have powers to do the things that we think are most urgent and would like them to do. Tough!

In last May’s Centre for Cities/ComRes poll – still the most comprehensive on metro mayors – of the five issues West Midlands respondents felt should be the priorities for politicians in their city, only one, housing, was something that would be among the responsibilities devolved either to a West Midlands metro mayor or even the Combined Authority.

Most%20important%20issues.JPG

Aspects of health and social care, education, and emergency services may possibly be devolved in the future. But on May 5th most of the mayor’s attention will go to business support and inward investment, transport, and colleges and adult skills that only about one in 20 possible voters have as their priorities.

It’s a big disjunction and on the face of it a recipe for yet further voter disillusionment. And a major dilemma for those who genuinely believe that elected mayors represent the best chance we’re likely to have of decentralising serious power to England’s localities and regions: how to ‘big-up’ the potential of metro mayors without misrepresenting and overselling them.

I have neither the answer nor much space, but I was struck this week by the Institute for Government’s latest ‘Local Leadership event’ – ‘How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve their city-regions?’, and particularly the encapsulation of the IfG’s mayoral case by its Director of Development, Dr Jo Casebourne.

Emphasise, she suggested, these mayors’ difference from either existing or previously rejected mayors; that they’re leaders of place – of functional economic areas, not councils; able to provide visible, legitimate and accountable leadership and wield ‘soft power’, with better access to ministers and to other public sector bodies across their regions; and outward-looking and future-focused, able to attract inward investment and, working with other mayors, to secure, as in London, more devolved powers, both functional and financial, in the future.

 

Chris Game - pic

 

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

The forgotten local elections – Conservatives defied predictions here too

Chris Game

You’d not have known it from the national media, either before Election Day or since, but the 650 parliamentary contests weren’t the only ones taking place in the UK last Thursday. It was the year in local government’s four-year election cycle that almost all English district and unitary councils – 279 of 293 – had elections, and there were votes too for six mayors, for many parish and town councils, plus the odd local referendum.

There were no council elections in London, Scotland or Wales, but English voters – many doubtless to their surprise – were confronted by up to five ballot papers. Those in Bedford, for example, had votes for an MP, a mayor, two borough councillors, up to 11 parish councillors, and a referendum on their Police and Crime Commissioner’s proposal to increase Council Tax – the first ever of its kind. The proposal – specifically for a 15.8% increase in the Police and Crime Commissioner’s portion of council tax – was rejected by nearly 70% to 30%: Yes 91,086; No 207,551.

These multiple ballots offered electors the obvious opportunity for split-voting: one for their MP or national government, and another more personal, local or protest vote. Minor parties and independents in the council elections could be expected to be chief beneficiaries, but, as shown in the nearly complete results table, that was another ‘expert’ prediction largely confounded.

Blog 11th May

9,500 local elections are even trickier to predict than 650 parliamentary ones, and few are daft or brave enough to try. Those who do will start from the baseline of four years ago – 2011 here – when these actual seats were last fought, compare that year’s results with current national opinion polls, and hope.

2011 was surprisingly good for the Conservatives, a year into their far from popular Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They gained votes from disaffected Lib Dems, and the coinciding electoral reform referendum galvanised their own supporters. This time, though, the national election effect was expected to boost the turnout of Labour and Lib Dem voters.

The poll standings of both main parties had dropped significantly since 2011. But, with the Conservatives the more damaged by UKIP’s dramatic rise, and defending twice as many seats as Labour, the latter was predicted to make most net gains, with the Lib Dems not suffering “too badly” in losing perhaps “around 50 seats”.

If these predictions echoed those for the General Election, then so did the outcome. The Conservatives were unambiguous winners of these local elections, Labour not just net, but absolute, losers, and the Lib Dems suffered as painfully as they did nationally.  UKIP made progress, but less than it hoped, and the Greens flatlined.

For the Conservatives, their more than 30 gains – mostly, it should be noted, councils previously under arithmetically No Overall Control – will take the local headlines. Two particularly satisfying results, though, will be the retained control in their only two metropolitan boroughs – Solihull and Trafford – both with additional seats. Solihull Greens lost a seat, but, with the Lib Dems losing two, they are still the official opposition.

Conservative unitary council gains include Basingstoke & Deane, Poole, and Bath & North East Somerset, where there are now two Greens, but 14 fewer Lib Dems and a first-time Conservative majority. Districts won include traditionally Independent Babergh, Suffolk, also for the first time in its 41-year history; Amber Valley, Gravesham and North Warwickshire straight from Labour; Hinckley & Bosworth from the Lib Dems; Gloucester, St Albans, Scarborough, Winchester, and Worcester.

Further Labour losses to No Overall Control included Walsall metropolitan borough and the unitaries, Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent. There was a little compensation perhaps in hanging on to a knife-edge majority in Bradford, thanks to Independents, UKIP and Respect all losing seats, and gaining majorities in unitary Stockton-on-Tees, and, after a suspended recount and overnight rest, Cheshire West & Chester.

Labour is also now largest party on Brighton & Hove council, since 2011 the UK’s first to be run by the Greens. As in the General Election, the Greens’ recent membership surge didn’t really translate into hard results, though they will be encouraged by seven gains in Labour-dominated Bristol, bringing them within touching distance of official opposition.

This time UKIP was the history maker. UKIP leader Nigel Farage had failed to become Thanet South’s MP, but his party reduced Thanet district’s Labour councillors from 24 to 4 and, with 33 of its own, won overall control of its first principal council.

Good Lib Dem news was at a premium all weekend, but enough of Bedford’s conscientious voters gave their mayoral ballot paper X to Lib Dem Dave Hodgson to re-elect him comfortably for a third term as the borough’s mayor.

In other mayoral votes, Peter Soulsby was re-elected for Labour in Leicester, Gordon Oliver for the Conservatives in Torbay, and Mansfield’s three-term Independent Tony Egginton was succeeded by his Mansfield Independent Forum colleague, Kate Allsop.

Another Independent, Mike Starkie, was elected as the first mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, while in Middlesbrough three-term Independent Ray Mallon has retired and is replaced by Labour’s Dave Budd – though only after a second preference count and the rejection of large numbers of spoilt ballots, presumably from the many Labour members who, despite the result, want the mayoral system abolished.

In these mayoral elections at least, then, there’s something for almost everyone: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, and Independent.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Buying local votes? Campaign spending effects in Belgian local elections

Gert-Jan Put, Bart Maddens and Jef Smulders

In democratic countries worldwide, elections are being organized on an increasingly larger scale. This makes it more challenging for political parties and candidates to communicate with voters and reach their target groups. Alternatively, they resort to mass media and costly electoral campaigns, for which parties and candidates are often prepared to spend exorbitant amounts of money.

Research on campaign spending in general elections has shown that these investments do matter, especially for political challengers: by raising personal expenses, challengers are able to close the gap with incumbent candidates. The latter group enjoys the obvious advantage of their office, which provides them with more (campaign) visibility and organizational capacity. As a result, spending is significantly less effective for them than for challengers, who need to compensate their lower visibility with more expensive campaigns. This incumbency effect is confirmed in majoritarian electoral systems such as the US, UK, Sweden and Canada, but also in some proportional systems such as Ireland and Belgium.

But local elections are of course a different story compared to general elections. In these smaller-scale electoral contests, voters are more familiar with candidates because of their closer geographical proximity. This changes the nature of the electoral competition and campaigning: voters will be more inclined to cast personal votes, candidates use different campaign techniques and the media plays a more limited role.

Does this imply that campaign spending effects will also be different in these elections? Is it worthwhile to invest a huge amount of personal resources in local campaigns? Does it increase the number of preference votes a candidate receives, and more importantly, does it raise one’s odds of getting elected? In our recent article in Local Government Studies, we address these questions and examine the effect of individual campaign spending on the results of local election candidates.

The article focuses on the case of the Belgian municipal elections of 2012, for which we collected data on 30 municipalities in the district of Leuven (in the Flemish region). We registered the declared campaign expenses for all the 172 lists and 3.632 candidates in these 30 municipalities. However, many of these candidates cannot be considered ‘serious contenders’: their candidature is merely symbolical to support the party, they are not interested in holding local office and will arguably invest little in their campaign. Therefore, we only included candidates who already held office in the municipality or at a higher political level, as well as candidates with some level of media attention during the campaign. This group of 1.006 serious contenders (28.4% of all candidates) were included in our analysis.

The results show that the personal investment in the campaign does have an effect on the electoral result. Candidates who spend more in absolute terms or outspend their rivals (at the list and the municipality level) obtain a better result, even though the effect is small. We even found some traces of an effect of personal spending on the odds of obtaining a seat in the municipal council. This finding points at an intriguing difference with national elections in Belgium, where such an effect was not found. Winning a seat is obviously what matters most to a candidate. If a candidate can increase the number of preferential votes, but not to such an extent that he or she can capture a seat, the investment is useless. In this way, investing in the campaign can be considered as more effective for local than for national elections. At the same time, this result should not be overstated. The chances of obtaining a seat in Belgian municipal elections are still overwhelmingly determined by other parameters, such as the position on the list and the incumbency status of the candidate.

Indeed, holding any type of local or higher office increases the number of preferential votes. There are also indications that spending is less effective for candidates holding an executive office in the municipality (as mayor or alderman). Interestingly, holding higher office (i.e. regional and national MP, MEP, minister) has a smaller effect than important local offices such as mayor or alderman. These findings confirm that the result of local elections (at least with regard to preferential votes) is still largely determined by local dynamics, as it should be.

This post is based on the authors’ full length article, ‘Buying local votes: the effect of individual campaign spending under a semi-open PR system in the Belgian local elections‘, published in Local Government Studies.

gert-jan

Gert-Jan Put is a researcher at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) affiliated to the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research interests include candidate selection, legislative turnover and campaign spending.

maddens

Bart Maddens is professor of political science at the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research focuses on political party finance and elections.

jef

Jef Smulders is a researcher at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) affiliated to the KU Leuven Public Governance Institute, Belgium. His research interests mainly include party and campaign finance and political party organization.