England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Local elections: The hot seats and the not seats

Photo Credit: byzantiumbooks Flickr via Compfight cc

Voters can go to the polls in 248 council areas to choose 8,424 new councillors in 5,629 ward from 25,778 candidates on this Thursday 2 May*. Each person’s vote is meant to carry the same weight, but some voter’s choices will be a little bit choicer than others.

In years like this one, where local elections don’t coincide with a general election or a European election on the same day, turnouts are often as low as just a third of the electorate and some wards have recorded turnouts as low 20%. Councillor candidates at our member authorities are telling us that many voters are feeling particularly apathetic about this year’s contests. The clouds of political discontent overshadowing these elections may have become a storm of electoral disgruntlement mischaracterised as apathy. Turnouts could reach new lows. In some cases, deciding not to vote is a rational (if not entirely pro-social) decision – if one party is likely to win hands down for example, or perhaps if there’s only one candidate on the ballot…

The Not Seats

In some areas, the chance of affecting the outcome through the ballot is zero. The Electoral Reform society has written about the problem of uncontested elections. In almost 150 wards no election is being held at all because only one person stood. Another 152 wards are under-contested with a party guaranteed to get at least one or two of the seats because there are only four or five candidates for a ward with three seats. Across the country this means that over 800,000 people are being given no choice at all in our most fundamental democratic elections. Usually the incumbent party is the one best placed and most likely to have a candidate in under-contested on uncontested elections. Because most of seats up for elections are held by Conservative councils, this also means that they are the most likely to benefit from these ‘walk-on’ elections.

The Hot Seats

This is in stark contrast to wards where returning officers will declare a winner where the margin might have only been a handful of votes. And occasionally there is no difference at all and the winner is decided by a final toss of a coin. . Campaigners might well regret not knocking on a extra few doors and voters might well regret a choice to stay home. And while the political past is not always an indication of a future hot contest, hotly contested wards tend to remain that way for more than one political cycle, but finding that information from an independent source is almost impossible.

Unchangeable council control

And whether a seat is uncontested or is a neck and neck race could make little difference to the outcome of council control. Where councils elections are ‘by thirds’ – meaning that only one seat is up for election each year in a four year cycle (with one ‘off’ year), it can be hard to change the political control of the council in any given year. In some councils it is impossible. Of the 97 councils which aren’t ‘all out’, there are around 40 councils this year where the ruling party’s majority is larger than the number of seats up for election meaning it’s mathematically impossible to change which party is deciding policies and procedures for a local area.

Voter information

While it’s all very well saying that it’s every person’s civic duty to vote, people lead busy lives and if they think their vote won’t matter then it’s easy to decide to stay home. I have a lot of sympathy for this decision.  As an American, it takes a lot of effort for me to vote in US Federal elections. It requires at a minimum two transatlantic postings, but I often have to do follow-up phone calls because my ballot always seems to go missing (at least since the new electoral administrator came was appointed). More than once I’ve voted with an emergency write-in ballot. Frankly, for my gerrymandered one-party rule Congressional district it’s just not worth the postage to vote in mid-term elections. But I always check the data before I make that decision.

For English local elections, it’s not so easy to find that data. Although civic society organisations like Democracy Club gather information to inform voters on who their choices are through Who Can I Vote For?, it’s not always obvious to voters if the race is tight or if the council could flip control. Yes, information on previous elections is available on council websites, but the democracy sections on council websites are notoriously difficult to navigate as our colleague Alice Buszard has recently described.

We need better information for voters. And I suspect with better information and more transparency about political control, we’d get better turnout. We talked about this a bit in a  And if people did decide to stay home on election day at least it could be an informed decision.

Hear more about better democratic information on the LGiU Fortnightly podcast episode which featured. Michela Palese from the Electoral Reform Society and Sym Roe and Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club.  Local elections: As fun as Fortnite?

*Thanks to Democracy Club and all the volunteers who compiled candidate information.