England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

State of the race memo


As we enter the final stretch before voters head to the polls on May 5th, LGiU chief executive Jonathan Carr-West brings you a state of the race memo examining the key issues facing the electorate.

Defying gravity

Some key laws of British political gravity could be rewritten in these elections. Over recent decades a clear pattern has emerged: national governments become progressively less popular and oppositions build their local government base.

This year with both major national parties in crisis, we could see this pattern disrupted for the first time in over thirty years.

It’s the local, stupid

Local elections tend to get read in terms of what they tell us about national politics but we should never forget that they are, well, local. They elect the administrations that control bread and butter issues like social care, school places, parking and planning. People do have views about these issues and they do vote to reward or punish local authorities for their handling of them.

This year, against a backdrop of increasing devolution and radical changes to the way in which councils are financed, there’s more at stake locally than ever. Too often however, it’s hard for people to make the connection between their vote and the political direction of their council: exactly the problem our #outforthecount campaign seeks to address.

The Mayors and PCCs – can they muster the vote?

With Mayoral votes taking place in Liverpool, London, Bristol and Salford – and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections taking place across the rest of the country – the big battle here is for turnout. The initial PCC elections had some of the lowest turnouts ever recorded and were seen as a snub for one of the first Conservative attempts at governance changes. George Osborne has made elected mayors a condition for serious devolution, much to the fury of the Tory counties. If turnout in mayoral races is very low this insistence will look somewhat arbitrary.

A Khan victory in London could compensate for Labour’s council losses to some extent, but this might follow the typical trajectory of London Mayoral battles with outer London trooping out to vote blue and a dampening of the Labour vote as those suspicious of Corbyn remain in the don’t know camp. Former Mayor Ken Livingstone finds himself suspended from the party with accusations of anti-semitism which will not help in northern Boroughs Labour needs to be winning.

Liverpool’s Joe Anderson looks unsurmountable – last time achieving 57% of the vote, whilst in Salford current Mayor Ian Stewart is standing down and his Labour successor Paul Dennant is expected to win despite a low turnout.

Bristol is perhaps the city with some of the most dynamic local politics in the country. Traditionally in play at parliamentary level by all three main parties and with a lively history of independent politics; Labour’s Marvin Reese was a surprise loser in 2012 with colourful Independent architect George Ferguson taking City Hall. Ferguson is bookmaker’s favorite to remain in power with Labour a close second.


Both Labour and the Conservatives are experiencing a torrid and increasingly rancorous internal debate. As Brexit tears the Tories apart and the Labour leadership is engulfed in a row about alleged anti-semitism, the biggest loser could be turnout. Might this rancour lead to a dampening of the vote, exacerbated by low individual voter registration?

Or perhaps not.

The country is experiencing a second rocky referendum and debates are taking place in the Dog and Duck about our future relationship with the EU. And politicians from all sides have been championing regional devolution and how that should mean voters feel they have more influence. Could this have led to an upsurge in democratic engagement?

Labour: the Corbyn effect

Internal Labour briefings have warned of the loss of up to 200 seats and the loss of key marginal councils: presumably in the hope that any result short of this will be seen as acceptable. Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader on a radical prospectus which contrasts with pragmatic basis on which most Labour councils govern. This will be the first electoral test of whether the Labour leader’s brand of radicalism has resonated with the wider public. And recent challenges around anti-semitism may have unexpected impact on local voting. But it’s going to be a hard vote to read: how bad is bad? And are people voting Labour because of the leadership or in spite of it?Corbyn has come out fighting in the final week of the campaign setting out the Party’s aim to win seats.

These councils were last elected in 2012, a high point for Labour, so we would expect losses. However, the last time a national opposition party lost council seats against the Government was in the early 1980s under Michael Foot.

The narrative that emerges around these results could define the Corbyn leadership project.

Tory immunity?

By rights Tories should be having a torrid time: Europe, the junior doctors’ strike, falling out with their own base because of devolution squabbles and a tough funding settlement.

There will be some interesting county elections next year but for now the profile of where elections are taking place makes the Conservatives fairly immune from electoral fall out.

However, if Labour don’t tank as much as they themselves predict could this be seen as an indictment of how the general public feels about the Conservative Party tearing itself apart in an increasingly visceral debate on the referendum?

Where are UKIP?

UKIP made big gains two years ago but lost a bit of momentum in 2015. With the backdrop of the EU referendum, this should really be their year. But they seem strangely absent from the debate. Perhaps because so many Tory big beasts are fronting up the Brexit campaign.

Will they benefit from the EU referendum in the local vote or do they now seem surplus to requirements?

One step forward for the Lib dems – two steps backwards for the Greens

The Lib Dems are also pretty absent from the national debate – despite, or perhaps because of, being the most pro-European party. But they have a track record of performing at local level even when not driving the national debate.

They may have aspirations to win back control of Three Rivers and Stockport. At a time of trouble for both Labour and the Conservatives could this be the start of the road back for the Lib Dems?

Starting from a similar point to the Lib Dems, the Greens face an uphill battle to remain as the go-to party of protest as they shed voters and members to the Labour Party. However, they are only a couple of seats away from taking control of Norwich, potentially only the second Council they have ever controlled.

It’s not just England

Elections are also underway in Scotland and Wales. These are generally treated as marginal by a Westminster focuses media. But if we have learnt one thing of the last two years, it’s that the politics of the devolved nations can shape the landscape of the whole country.

But…at the end of the day…is this effective local democracy? How will all this feel to individual voters on the ground? Will the man/woman on the Clapham omnibus – or Mr/Mrs Jones at 7 Acacia Avenue – feel their concerns are properly reflected in these elections? If regional devolution is progressing effectively we would – perhaps idealistically – hope they should feel more engaged. But is the cut and thrust of local politics yet open enough to such opportunities?