England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Reading the tea leaves of the local elections

Photo Credit: moonlightbulb Flickr via Compfight cc

It’s four weeks until the local elections and today we publish our Ones to Watch guide to the 2019 local elections which highlights the hot races and who has the most to lose and to gain. This is part of our LE2019 local elections support and coverage. You can find out more about our local elections work and how to get involved here. 

On 2 May, voters will go to the polls to choose over 8,300 councillors in 248 English local authorities. On the same day voters will also elect councillors to the eleven local authorities in Northern Ireland. The last time most of these seats were up for election (barring by-elections) was 2015 when the local elections coincided with the general election. The general election drew most of the press and political attention, and we saw that the results of the local and general elections were consistent. Conservatives made ground mainly from councils that were in “No Overall Control” and Labour didn’t lose much, although they did lose a handful of councils to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats experienced a night of pain, nationally and locally.

Since those councillors were elected the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016 and ‘enjoyed’ a snap general election on 2017, which left the nation with a hung parliament. At the time of writing, there is no clear consensus on how, or when, or perhaps whether, Brexit will take place. The local elections will be the first time voters go to the polls, after the date originally set for Brexit and with parliament in a state of full on crisis. Inevitably they will draw a significant amount of attention from political watchers. But if local elections were wrongly overlooked when these seats were contested four years ago, this time they will be contested in an atmosphere where far too much may be read into them. They will carry the burden of standing in for an opinion poll on Europe and on national politics. Of course, in reality, they are neither of these things.

Local elections are ultimately about local matters and choosing the people who will make decisions on things that affect everything from the state of the street where we live, to the parks and playgrounds we take our kids to, or the safety of our food. They are not a substitute for a general election and without a clear consensus on the details of Brexit within any major political party they certainly cannot be an indication of the nation’s mood.

However, there is one area where we should expect the national to influence the local and that is a national overarching policy on matters like adult social care, devolution or even how local government might be sustainably funded. Sadly, coherent approaches to local government policy have been largely absent as parties and politicians have created a Brexit sized hole in the national discourse.

Since we cannot predict that many councils will actually change political control this year, there will be a great deal reading the tea leaves of the national share of the vote. What we should really be watching this election season to judge the nation’s mood is turnout. Rates of participation in local elections in ‘off’ years have traditionally been low and Brexit has dominated the political discourse. How will a sense of rising dissatisfaction in national politics affect local take-up of basic civil rights? Will a decline in local journalism and the perennial difficulty of finding information about local candidates mean turnout is lacklustre? And if voter turnout across the nation hits the bottom, what does that say about the state of our democracy? Will reading the tea leaves of this election only tell us that the cup needs filling up?