England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

“But who’s in control?” Navigating England’s patchy local elections data

In a bumper year for local elections in England, LGIU’s Lucy Zhu reports on their work compiling local elections data for our Ones to Watch guide – never an easy task but, despite the unique challenges of 2021, there are signs of improved transparency.

With two years’ worth of English local elections being held and the difficulties that Covid-19 has presented, these are certainly very different elections to those we are used to. This year’s ‘Super Thursday’ will include local authority elections in hundreds of wards and divisions for both the delayed elections of 2020 and the scheduled elections of 2021, as well as directly-elected mayors and combined authority mayors from 2020 and 2021, parish councils, by-elections, Neighbourhood Plan referenda and 40 Police and Crime Commissioner posts.

Every eligible resident is due to be an elector in 2021 and across all of these different elections, many voters will have four (and in at least three places, five) ballot papers to fill out, meaning communicating the local political implications of voters’ choices at the ballot box is more important, but also more difficult, than ever. Covid-19 further hindered this communication process as in-person campaigning was limited due to shielding and social distancing, and the government did not confirm that door-to-door campaigning would be allowed until restrictions eased in March, thus creating a wider gap between local governments and their residents. Councils and the volunteers who are working to make these elections happen can only be applauded for their hard work and contribution in ensuring democracy can operate, even during a pandemic.

As usual, LGIU is providing information about the local elections that are taking place, detailing which councils are up for election and which are potentially going to change control in our Ones to Watch publication. While it has never been easy to pull this data (as we wrote in 2019), this year’s elections are especially tricky because of Covid-19, as the postponement of elections due to be held in 2020 made it much less clear which councils are up for election and who is standing to be a councillor. The impact of Covid-19 has unfortunately and tragically meant that there are now more vacancies than one would expect in a normal year, making it difficult to keep track of political control and determine any changes that have occurred since 2019. Residents looking for more information about their choices in the upcoming vote may struggle to locate information such as overall political control, the balance of power, or which ward seats are up for election, as many council websites display this information separately from the election notice and registration pages.

Additionally, due to a number of new reorganisation proposals, several county council elections and the districts within them have had their elections pushed into 2022.

If it is unclear for those working within the sector, it is hard to imagine how confusing it might be for residents who aren’t thinking about local government every day to know what is going ahead and what that means for them.

Despite all of the difficulties faced this year, there has been a growing improvement in transparency from both councils themselves and from other sources. Some councils, such as Devon County Council and Bristol City Council, have dedicated political makeup pages that explain the current control of the council and the number of councillors from each party, with the former using a graphic to help make this clear. Other councils have made information more accessible from home, such as Doncaster Council who have provided a machine-readable booklet, available on phone, tablet or computer, outlining the mayoral elections including the voting system and key voting and candidate information.

Democracy Club has also attempted to counteract any confusion for voters with their Democratic Dashboard which collates all of this information in one place. The data is gathered by volunteers who worked together on nomination day to collect Statements of Persons Nominated published on council websites. Additionally, LGIU has done work with the BBC to put together infographics showing where council money is spent so voters can see how local elections might affect them. You can find these infographics by searching #BBCElections on Twitter or Local Elections on the BBC website.

In general, over the past few years, there has been a noticeable improvement in the coverage of local elections by major news outlets, such that LGIU is no longer one of the only sources of live coverage. We are glad to have set that trend, now seeing reporters at the counts, overnight coverage and live results, therefore enabling LGIU to evolve our coverage to include commentary and analysis instead of just the results.

Keeping track of 20,000 council seats in England alone is no small task at the best of times, and given that councils only had this year’s elections confirmed in February, they have done an excellent job of ensuring that the elections will run smoothly and safely this year, in spite of limited guidance from central government and the backdrop of Covid-19. Hopefully, this trend of improving data transparency will continue for future elections, enabling a smoother democratic process and making the task much easier for the LGIU team!

Check out our local elections communications guide for tips on communicating election results here

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