With less than two weeks to go until the local elections, the LGIU brought together experts on local elections and local democracy to give their perspectives on why these elections really matter.
Our expert panel:
- Dr Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive, LGIU
- Keiran Pedley, Research Director in Public Affairs, Politics and Society, Ipsos UK
- Dr Hannah Bunting, Lecturer in Quantitative British Politics, University of Exeter
- Dr Greg Stride, Research Assistant, LGIU
Jonathan started the event by saying that local elections are far more than just an opportunity to predict the fortunes of the major parties at the next general election – they have a direct impact on the policies that determine what life is like in our local areas.
Our panel then went on to discuss a range of issues surrounding these local elections, centring on two major themes: attitudes to local democracy and voter ID.
Attitudes to local democracy and government
Keiran Pedley pointed out that the public recognise the importance of local government for the quality of their everyday lives, that they trust local government more than central government (although less than the police or other local institutions), and that significant numbers of people would like to know more about local government or get more involved in local decision-making,
Dr Hannah Bunting presented the recent history of people’s attitudes towards local and national politics, starting with the mid-2000s, when people in Britain started to become more frustrated with politics. Satisfaction with democracy in Britain has declined in recent years, unlike in other parts of Western Europe. But, this dissatisfaction primarily presented itself as frustration with the EU. Local democracy became a way to express dissatisfaction with the EU, leading to a growth in UKIP councillors, for example. But actual local democracy did not see the same growth in dissatisfaction, and decentralisation has become a growing part of the national conversation since the mid-2010s.
Hannah also pointed out that a host of parties have developed in Britain which are only focussed on local issues, indicating an increasing interest in local issues. People care enough to make hundreds of entire political parties to represent their local areas. The number of independents elected has been increasing since the 1990s, with the largest proportion always in a four-year cycle. A four-year cycle that includes 2023, so looking out for the number of independents winning in 2023 will be a major part of the story.
Hannah compared trust in local and national governments. Her research reached similar conclusions to Keiran’s that people trust local governments more than national governments. 86% of countries in Western Europe trust local governments more. But, in countries where local governments have higher spending, the gap in trust starts to disappear, and local governments suffer from the same frustrations that people have with national governments.
On voter ID, Keiran pointed out that there is significant support for voter ID requirements, but that there is a potential that the people who currently are not sure whether they support or oppose the policy could be swayed by how the policy works in practice.
Alongside this, the public has some confusion about what will and will not be acceptable forms of voter ID, with significant numbers believing that ineligible forms of identification, such as student cards, will be accepted.
Hannah pointed out that turnout is always lower in local elections, but that we should watch turnout especially this time. The dynamics of voter ID – which might make it harder to vote but might also increase the salience of these elections – will be an important part of the story of turnout at these elections.
Greg raised the practical challenge of implementing voter ID. First, by pointing out that elections are hard to organise, and that limited resources, complicated legislation and pressured working environments mean that for years, the small elections teams that make sure elections happen have been under strain.
Next, Greg went into how voter ID could introduce new challenges in three main ways. First, they could make it harder to recruit people to work in polling stations, who may be put off by the new requirements or by the possibility of conflict. Second, finding enough polling stations will be more difficult now there are requirements to allow people to have their ID checked in private. Finally, for people without ID they can apply for a voter authority certificate, and election teams are having to produce all of these alongside their other work, with a deadline only a few days before the election. All of this adds up to make these a difficult set of elections to run.
During the Q&A, the panel also pointed out that we will not know the impact of voter ID, either in general or on specific minority groups until scientific research has taken place in the months after these elections, or more likely after a few electoral cycles where the results may become more significant, especially during a general election.
Hannah also said that the impact of voter ID might have an effect on whether there is renewed interest in introducing a national identification card.
Reflections on the Panel
The panel was a very valuable look at the state of attitudes to local democracy before these elections, and the potential impact of voter ID.
Overall, the evidence presented by the panel suggested that there is significant public trust in local government, and that decentralisation has become a significant part of the national conversation about governance in the UK.
On voter ID, the panel demonstrated that although there is public support for ID, there is also evidence of public confusion, potential for administrative difficulties and a significant delay before we can give a considered answer as to what the total impact of voter ID will be.
The panel left with a few thoughts on what to watch out for at these local elections – the number of independents elected, turnout, any immediate impact of voter ID.
State of the Locals is part of LGIU’s one-stop-shop for local elections resources, the most pertinent local elections resources for you and your teams. Our analysis and coverage covers key election themes including: public trust, transparency, safety, communications and election issues.