England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Lessons from the ballot box


Much ink has been spilled in the noble cause of analysing this month’s election results. What can we learn from the ways in which people reported the elections and the narratives that emerged around them?

At the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) we think two things stood out, neither particularly encouraging.

There was significantly greater focus on the local elections this year. It helps that there was no General Election and a couple of high profile mayoral races. The BBC, The Guardian and The Telegraph all increased the space and resources devoted to local authority results.

The bad news is that the vast majority of coverage treats local politics purely as a barometer of national politics: a canary in the mine for general elections.

No one actually believes the share of votes cast across 124 councils in May 2016 is the same as the votes that will be cast in a General Election in May 2020. So it is pointless to start colouring in digital benches in blue, red and yellow based on the local results.

People do, of course, vote according to national political allegiances. But they also vote to support or reject the policies pursued by local councils on a range of everyday issues.

If we take this idea seriously then the overall picture changes considerably. Take the Labour vote. For most commentators this was the big story of the night. Opinion was divided as to whether this was a disastrous night for Jeremy Corbyn, who failed to make any gains or a reasonable result holding on.

But all agreed that whatever the result, it told us something about the public’s view of the Labour leader and his subsequent electoral chances.

Labour councils tend to have very different politics to the Labour leadership. They are actually governing places, with all the messy compromises and imperfections this involves.

An alternative reading is, if the Labour vote held up better than many expected, this has nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn but shows people rewarding Labour councils for their perceived value. Maybe local government is all that stands between Labour and electoral oblivion?

A similar argument could be played out for the Conservatives. Local councils continue to implement austerity in ways which manage to maintain local services and keep local people broadly satisfied. Are they protecting the Government from the electoral consequences of their own policies?

Either contention could be argued with, but unless we have that conversation we will not be able to see what national politics can learn from its local base and we will never be able to have that conversation if we keep treating local politics as Westminster’s little league.

Our second big reflection was the quality of information about local elections and local election results is still somewhat less than optimal.

That’s the problem our Out for the Count campaign set out to tackle by providing information on every candidate, live result tracking and the first-ever open data set of those results.

There are some brilliant councils who make their results accessible, but in too many cases finding out who controls a council and how it has changed as the result of the election requires digging and analysis.

Basic test: does your council state clearly and obviously on its website what the political control of the authority is?

We know more effective use of data is a key emerging issue for councils: to unlock efficiencies, to wrap services more effectively around citizens and to manage demand.

If we can’t crack basic transparency, what hope do we have of overcoming the more profound challenges posed by the use of data, especially personal data?

So, overall, there are reasons to be cheerful. Local government is riding to the rescue of British politics, but that’s all the more reason why we need to learn to talk more about local democracy and talk about it in the right way: one that acknowledges its quiet centrality in our civic life.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.


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