England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Through the local elections maze


Photo Credit: ell brown Flickr via Compfight cc

LGiU’s Alice Buszard has been gathering information about all the local elections taking place in England this year – and as she recounts here, it is not a simple task.

Each year LGiU undertakes a project to provide information about the local elections which take place in May. This year is a particularly big one, with 248 councils across England holding elections. However, there remains a lack of clear information about which seats are up for grabs, confusing not only members of the public, but those who work within the field.

Researching local elections is a monumental task; there is no standardised method of logging the political control of councils, nor which seats are up for election. Councils have varying qualities of websites, many of which are often not correctly maintained, meaning that information is frequently inaccurate or misleading. Since the publication of our 2019 ‘ones to watch’ guide just two weeks ago, LGiU has received a number of emails from councils stating that the information within the guide is now out of date due to political changes in the past few days, and consequently in need of revising. Though this system was a success in these instances, there are some councils (particularly those which are no overall control) where political uncertainty exists. With councillors switching parties, boundary changes and vacancies cropping up, it is even more vital that council election information is efficiently provided. However, it is often hard to access, leading to questions regarding transparency; how can local elections expect high turnouts if voters are unable to understand who they are voting for, nor what impact their vote will have?

This uncertainty does not solely originate from councils. Central government often fares no better at communicating the right information. While researching May’s elections, the most recent document published by the House of Commons library was misleading regarding the number of councils holding elections – no mention was made of the local authorities (such as Sussex and Dorset councils) which had undergone unitarization in the past few months, bringing down the total number of stated elections by approximately twenty. Even reading so-called informed sources are not enough to fully comprehend the complexity of local elections; for example, the Electoral Commission’s website stated that elections were being held in 249 local authorities this year, rather than the definite 248.

Electing by thirds does not make the researching task any easier. Our ‘ones to watch’ guide broadly predicts which councils could face swing votes, however a more accurate picture could be determined were councils to make clear which are the third of seats up for election. In councils where the division of seats is marginal, electing by thirds can lead to a shake-up of local politics. This is, however, difficult to realise without understanding how many Conservative, Labour and so forth, seats are up.

Election organisation has also been made more challenging by the Brexit fog. Following a delay to the country’s withdrawal, local authorities now have to prepare for European Elections. These will take place on 23rd May, unless an agreement is reached between the EU and the UK beforehand, resulting in two elections which must be coordinated within a short time period.

Some councils set better examples than others, rigorously listing ward-by-ward, party-by-party, how many seats are to be elected. Conversely, others make locating the relevant information tricky, unless you know where to look. With local elections just a couple of weeks away, a significant number of councils had no trace of the elections on their websites until 26th March (the very last day to publish the notice of election). Many of LGiU’s team sat in the office exasperatedly checking and double-checking that the numbers were right.

Organisations such as Democracy Club are attempting to centralise this information and make it more accessible, with LGiU providing assistance wherever possible. We recently published a communications guide which provides simple remedies to advise the public about election processes. Nevertheless, the intricacies surrounding access to information and transparency may lead some to propose a reform of local government’s electoral system by making it a legal requirement to provide better access to key information and removing elections by thirds. Doing so may lead to increased turnout on polling day and greater accountability in local politics.

Want to help us tell the story of the local elections?

We are looking for councillors, candidates and officers who are involved in this May’s local elections. If you are willing to share photos, videos and do a couple of quick telephone interviews before the election and during the count please get in touch with [email protected]