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 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.


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 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.

Why do we need a new model of public services?

Catherine Staite

Public services, including those commissioned and delivered by local government, have changed substantially in the past ten years. There have been changes in service delivery mechanisms, in relationships between users and services, in organisational structures and in partnership arrangements. It appears likely that the next ten years will bring at least as much change, if not more. One thing is clear: the old model of public services – people expect and services provide – is no longer tenable.  The growing gap between demand and resources has been described in terms of ‘the jaws of doom’.  That is one way of looking at the future.  Another way is to see the opportunities which we have to renegotiate ‘the deal’ between people and public services.

INLOGOV is working with a wide range of local authorities and other bodies to test a new model of public services. The model draws together many of the themes in current debates about the ways in which the public sector is likely  to have to change, in particular, how public services can manage demand, build capacity and achieve better mutual understanding, through the development of stronger relationships with communities as well as through co-production and behaviour change.  The purpose of this model is to support public service leaders – both political and managerial – to make better sense of a complex world.

INLOGOV’s model brings together the disparate cultural, structural, political and financial challenges facing local government and wider public services into an integrated framework, which takes account not only of individual drivers of change but also of the inter-relationship between changes in public services and the wider political and social context in which those changes are taking place. If we have a coherent model which reflects current and future realities it will be easier for us to explore possible solutions together.

We have concentrated on the challenges and opportunities for local government, in partnership with other local and national institutions.  That is not because we think local government is the most important player on the public service stage, it is because we think it plays a unique role as a convenor and mediator between conflicting interests within complex networks of players.  It is in this role that it can provide the creativity and connectivity to help shape solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of rising demand and falling resources.

The key drivers for a new model are: building stronger relationships with and between individuals and communities, increasing co-production of better outcomes by focusing on capacity, as well as need, and changing expectations and behaviours.  Before we can deliver these benefits we will need to change the way we think, plan and act.  There are many good, small scale examples of innovation which are delivering real change but now we need to scale up change to have a real impact – reducing dependency, building confidence and improving outcomes.  These are not quick fixes, so the sooner we start and the more energy we invest the sooner we’ll be able to achieve a sustainable relationship between public services and the communities they serve.


This blog post summarises some of the key messages in:

Why do we need a new model for public services? By Catherine Staite

Ch. 1 in Staite, C. (ed.)(2013). Making sense of the future: can we develop a new model for public services? (Birmingham: University of Birmingham/INLOGOV).

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Why don’t people vote?

David Craven

In an event that could be completely predicted, last week’s local elections have seen an average turnout of between 30% and 35%, almost unchanged from last year’s. The now-traditional question of why people do not vote in local elections will be asked once again.

There is a stunning lack of knowledge about local politics. Almost nobody knows to which party their councillors belong, never mind their names. I asked a few people here in Birmingham, all of whom regularly vote in local elections, and most weren’t sure how often elections take place, how many candidates per ward there are, or even which party is in control of the city council. (The trick question was when I asked whether they planned to vote in this year’s election: there are no elections in Birmingham this year, but nobody knew this). This admittedly unscientific straw poll reinforces what is a common belief, that local elections simply aren’t important in most people’s minds, at least important enough for people to know things about them.

There are other posited explanations: a more mobile workforce means that people are less likely to take an interest in local politics; the fact that local politics is more widely considered to be corrupt or more wasteful than national politics; the safe-seat situation depressing the belief that a person’s vote actually counts for anything. Everyone has their own reasoning, and there have been many things written both in academia and in the media.

One way we can try to see whether these reasons are factors is by-elections. If people voted based on perceived importance of the elections then by-elections should see similar numbers of people turn out to vote: the reality is very different. It is rare for more people to vote in by-elections than in the previous general election, with only fourteen British by-elections having increased turnouts since 1945, compared with the same number of British by-elections taking place in the current parliament alone. In those latest elections, turnout was down by about 20% on the general election, bringing it to an average of 37.2%, a typical local election turnout in recent times. In case one thinks this is a fluke, turnout during the previous parliament in by-elections was down by 15% on the previous general election.

My personal theory is that it is media coverage, or rather the lack thereof, that influences whether people vote. Before a general election there is near-blanket coverage, ensuring that everyone knows about the election, knows when it is, and has some idea of what the main parties claim to want to do should they be elected. Before a local or European election, however, there is very little in the way of media coverage from the national television networks, the source of most of the nation’s news, and believed by people to be the most trustworthy. The local newspaper industry is dying quicker than the national newspaper industry, and local television is consistently unwanted (although that isn’t stopping the government from trying again, so there is no real help from these quarters. The national media are neither interested nor really able to focus on local issues, and these issues become marginalized. Faced with a dearth of information and a lack of interest from others, we stop considering local elections, European elections, by-elections, and so on, and they do not even register in our minds. This third of the population that votes in general elections but not local elections suffer from a kind of local disenfranchisement, where they do realize that they should vote, but the reasons seem to get lost when they need to vote for something that doesn’t appear in the headlines on TV.

I’ll finish with one more possible reason: what if the general election fills many people with a spirit of camaraderie, that the country is going out to choose a government? If that’s the reason that some people vote only in general elections, then it will be very difficult to convince them otherwise.


David Craven is a Royal Society Research Fellow and Birmingham Fellow in the School of Mathematics at the University of Birmingham. His interests are primarily in mathematics, although branch out into chemistry and social choice theory.

UKIP exceeds expectations but what do the results tell us?

Karin Bottom

It is now clear that UKIP exceeded most expectations in the local elections on May the 2nd, garnering around 26 per cent of the vote. Yet as the dust settles, we must now ask what these results mean? Of course, at this stage it is hard to be sure and a certain amount speculation is involved but one thing is clear, the mainstream has a fight on its hands.

To label UKIP’s support as mere articulation of protest is naive, simplistic and lazy. More to the point, the ‘protest label’ implies that any vote for parties outside the mainstream – whatever their hue – is pathologically wrong and requires correction: this is not healthy analysis. While a number of voters may well be sending a message to their usual party of choice or just the ‘big three’ in general, a proportion of the population does appear to support UKIP and what it stands for. The sentiments which underpin much of the party’s support are also hard for the mainstream to swallow, particularly on the left and though all three are beginning to see the bigger picture and respond, they can’t escape from the fact that they are all linked with the problems the country faces right now: Labour is seen as responsible while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are denigrated for not reversing the situation. UKIP on the other hand claims to offer the electorate solutions and has no track record of failure, a very attractive quality which – given the right circumstances – can facilitate substantial success.

Yet, perhaps the most interesting questions concerning UKIP ask, what is it exactly? Is it a pressure group or is it a party? Hitherto labelled as a single issue organisation it has never shied away from its long-term key objective which is a retreat from the European Union. Recently though, it has expanded its arguments, rhetoric and goals. Initially marketing itself as a force for change, it now seems to hold a somewhat longer term view of its future.

Before the count was in, Farage’s discussion with Evan Davis on Radio 4’s Today Programme was particularly revealing when he when equated UKIP’s potential for bringing about change with that generated by the SDP’s success in the early 1980s. He argued that UKIP now has the capacity to be part of the political solution and this suggests that the party is developing in a new direction: indeed, the BBC’s Nick Robinson now argues that UKIP has made the transition from pressure group to political party. Only time will tell if this is the case but one thing is for sure, speculation and judgment of UKIP will only intensify.

Next year’s elections to the European Parliament and the 2015 General Election will certainly go some way in establishing the nature of UKIP and the type of organisation it really is; but in the meantime, its message is resonating with a sizeable proportion of the electorate and the mainstream is not sure what to do.


Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham. Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory. She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Elected Councillors: How much influence and power are they able to exercise?

John Raine

What might we expect of the county councillors we elected yesterday? Will those elected be able to implement the various initiatives they have pledged in their campaigns? In this respect, we might reasonably be a tad sceptical for a number of reasons.

First, councils no longer occupy the core local policy-making role of previous times. Nowadays there is more emphasis on multi-agency partnering in local public policy-making so that key matters are often decided in conjunction with other local public, voluntary and private sector organisations. While this may be beneficial in ensuring more ‘joined up’ public services, without doubt it has weakened the power and influence of elected councillors.

Second, the ‘cabinet’ model, introduced a decade ago, under which an elite group of councillors lead on policy-making, has also disempowered other councillors. While some can be influential internally on scrutiny committees reviewing policy and holding the cabinet members to account, many others act mostly as ward representatives and without much opportunity at all to contribute to decision-making.

Third, many of the services are now provided as ‘shared services’ with neighbouring councils and other local public organisations; others have been contracted out or are tied up in long-term public-private-partnership arrangements. While this may have reduced costs, it has also become more difficult for individual councillors to be influential in relation to those services since any proposed changes have to be re-negotiated with other partners and may involve complex contractual issues that are expensive-to-unpick.

Fourth, the move by councils to establish front-line, multi-service, ‘customer contact centres’ and public websites that not only provide information but also allow the public to interact directly, e.g. reporting maintenance and other problems, has diluted the role of the councillor as conduit to getting matters remedied. Indeed, in the digital era of sophisticated telephony and CRM systems, the elected councillor may well be last to learn about the problems that previously they might have championed on behalf of the public.

Fifth, the on-going austere financial climate facing councils means that there are generally less resources for new initiatives unless there is the prospect of efficiency improvements and financial savings in return. Moreover, lack of money provides a convenient excuse for the political leadership and officers to say ‘no’ to other councillors whose ideas happen not to find favour.

Overall, then, one might conclude that, despite all the rhetoric from government about ‘localism’ and about the empowerment of councillors as community leaders, the power and influence of those we eleced yesterday to make a significant difference will unfortunately seem quite limited. But candidates for councillorship should not be deterred; ‘where there is a will there is a way’! And for those elected and with sufficient commitment and determination to confront the obstacles and to press their cases for change effectively, there is certainly much to be done to make councils work better and more for the benefit of those they represent.


John Raine is Professor of Management in Criminal Justice at INLOGOV. He has been involved in criminal justice research, consultancy and teaching at Birmingham for some twenty-five years and has a strong track record of commissions for the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department/Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice on aspects of policy and practice within the criminal (and civil) justice sectors.

Local elections: challenges and opportunities for new administrations

Catherine Staite

Following the elections, both new and continuing local authority administrations, of all political hues, will face significant challenges. The ‘irresistible force’ of increased demand is meeting the ‘immovable object’ of financial stringency, creating an annual cycle of despair, where councils struggle to do ‘more for less’ – something which becomes progressively hard to achieve. Many will manage to balance their books till 2014 but face a financial cliff edge thereafter.

These apparently irreconcilable pressures may actually be the saving of local government by creating pressure for change – if it can reimagine and reinvent itself. What local government need to do in response to these challenges is less important than how it needs to be.

Councils are moving to commissioning from direct delivery, to supporting independence rather than dependence and to better understanding of the capacity of communities to improve their own lives. Local authorities are good at working in partnership – with health, the police, education and business. They need to get three other key relationships right; with the communities they serve, with each other and with central government.

Local authorities need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the diverse and complex capacities and needs of their communities. Engagement should be woven into the fabric of local government. There is a wealth of evidence that shows people do know and care about their local services. Without this public support no real transformation of local areas and services will be possible. The relationship between local authorities and their communities should therefore be less benefactor-to-beneficiary and more partner-to-partner – underpinned by mutual respect.

Many local authorities already work collaboratively to bring down costs and improve quality. This patchwork of ad hoc arrangements is often driven by enthusiastic individuals and is consequently fragile. Cooperation between local authorities is too often constrained by parochialism and soured by old rivalries, too much defending of council’s sovereignty and not enough drive to deliver efficiency and improved outcomes. The experience of successful collaboration tells us it should be the norm and not the exception. Councils will have to explain why they are cutting services or ceasing to invest for the future before doing everything possible to reduce costs and improve outcomes by working together.

The relationship and the balance of power between central and local government generates much debate. We have the most centralised model of government in Western Europe. Central government demonstrates a lack of trust in local government and an abiding reluctance to devolve financial control although they delegate to councils the implementation of their funding cuts. If central government acts like a disapproving parent, local government is likely to act like a recalcitrant child. Neither set of behaviours will deliver the outcomes that the Coalition and local authorities want to achieve for the people they are all are supposed to be serving.

It is time for local government to take the initiative in reshaping their relationship with communities, each other and central government. Local government is remarkably efficient and reliable. Serious service failures are only newsworthy because they are so rare. That competence confers authority and local government needs to get off the back foot, stop waiting for the green light from central government and make the changes needed to meet the challenges of the future.

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.