England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Making elections meaningful


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In his latest column for the Municipal Journal, Jonathan Carr-West considers the challenges for those coordinating the upcoming local elections and reflects on what’s changed for the public over the past five years.

Less than a month until local elections, and excitement is rising. At least it is in LGIU (virtual) HQ, and while we may not be the most representative sample, we think this year’s elections are even more interesting than usual.

Firstly, it’s a massive set of elections, including all those held over from last year which creates a huge logistical challenge for councils even before you add in the need to make the elections Covid-safe. Certainly, they will be like nothing we’ve seen before with protective dividers in counts and disputed ballot papers displayed on screens, not to mention voters taking their own pencils to the polling stations.

A year off also means that The MJ readers have been spared one round of my regular, if fruitless, diatribe on how local elections should be seen not just as a giant opinion poll but as substantive and meaningful elections. That’s true of course but it’s also true that this will be the first time that the Government has faced the electorate since the pandemic and the first electoral outing for Keir Starmer and Ed Davey as leaders of their parties. It’s unsurprising then that many commentators will be trying to read the political runes (though they may have to wait a while as we expect results to be slow coming through).

These are also the first re-elections for six metro mayors, four of which are held over from last year. Will we see these roles coming into political maturity? Has the pandemic enabled them to define themselves more clearly to the electorate?

All of that matters but none of it is what’s really at stake.

Many of the seats up for grabs were last contested in May 2016. Since then we’ve had the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump has been and gone, we’ve had two General Elections and a pandemic. It’s been quite an eventful five years. Now we find ourselves at a critical juncture: a world reshaped by Covid and a recovery that remains uncertain.

Much of that recovery will have to be driven by local government: from reimagining the high street to supporting left-behind children, not to mention perennial challenges like housing, social care and local responses to climate change.

Decisions on these and many other critical issues will be made by the councillors elected on 6 May. So, these elections are hugely consequential in their own right.

And yet, by our reckoning only about a third of the 143 councils with elections have any chance of changing control. Those, in general, are smaller cities and large towns which are already in NOC or razor-thin control. In most other places (including nearly all counties) large majorities or elections in thirds mean that change is unlikely or, in some cases, mathematically impossible.

One would be forgiven for thinking that there is a disconnect between the importance of the moment and the possibility for change.

Electoral reform remains the debate that dare not speak its name in this country. It’s ten years since the alternative vote (AV) referendum (often referred to as the ‘forgotten referendum’ though ‘forgotten’ may exaggerate its impact on the public consciousness even at the time) and it seems to have been the only one of our recent referendums that fulfilled the promise of settling the question for a generation. Even more limited reform gets short shrift. We recently advised a marginal council, out in thirds, that they should shift to all-out elections to achieve more stability. In doing so we achieved the unique feat of uniting all councillors of all parties: they all hated the idea.

We need two things from our electoral system, especially in a time of national crisis. It needs to provide enough stability to maintain public confidence and create a platform for ongoing action, but at the same time, it has to offer the possibility of meaningful change and give citizens a real sense that they can effect change through their vote.

We’re certainly achieving the first of those objectives but have we got the balance quite right?

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


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