The importance of local elections

Photo credit: jon smith

Photo credit: jon smith

On 2nd May large parts of the country are electing new county councils. In addition to this some of the largest unitary authorities such as Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire are also going to the polls. Even after budget cuts and the increasing outsourcing of services these authorities spend tens of billions of pounds a year on schools, transport, waste disposal, economic development, social care, social services, heritage and the arts, alongside hundreds of other vital causes and services. Ultimately they are vital in making decisions about how these areas function.

Whilst local factors often swing local elections in individual divisions, rightly so really with what’s at stake, repeated studies show that local electors are highly influenced by national politics. The large increases in allowances paid to councillors since the mid-’90s have proved invaluable, both in terms of getting a wider range of people to stand and in providing funding to smaller parties like the Lib Dems. So, two years away from the General Election this big round of council elections is vital for every party in the UK.

The Conservatives always do well in those elections based in rural authorities and are almost certain to retain their big southern authorities such as Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire along with their northern redoubt North Yorkshire. However, whilst their base is secure, the party is facing increased competition from UKIP and appear to be standing in noticeably fewer divisions, including ones they won in 2009!

The Lib Dems, as the other historic major party of rural and small town England, likewise look to shore up their support. They are fielding almost 600 fewer candidates than in 2009. However, their recent by-election successes and strong candidate fielding against the Conservatives suggests that in several south western authorities such as Somerset and Cornwall, they might gain control: handing valuable councillor allowance resources to the party. Gains elsewhere would also help, even if they were due to UKIP sapping Conservative votes. Likewise strong showings in Conservative facing divisions, especially in areas where a Lib Dem is currently MP, would also bode well for 2015.

UKIP are the great unknown of this election. They could potentially act as a spoiler for the Conservatives across their southern heartlands. However if UKIP doesn’t make gains across the country then 2013 will be seen as a setback for a movement which has gathered great momentum in the last 12 months. Win or lose, fighting in almost 1,750 divisions across the country might enable the party to build up what they have historically lacked: an activist base and local political organisation, things crucial to winning in future. As will be their ability to cream off Conservative votes, and if possible, convert them into seats in independent minded parts of the country like the south west and East Anglia.

The minimum Labour should hope for is to retake the big northern and midland authorities such as Northamptonshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire, that they lost in 2009. Solid gains in places like Lincoln, Worcester and Norwich which they need to retake at the 2015 election to get a majority would also be encouraging, as would a recovery in parts of Kent, Essex and Hampshire. The Green Party similarly will be looking to extend their reach in places like Norwich, Oxford and Cambridge whilst holding their gains in the south west, Lancashire and Sussex.

Local variety is part of the spice and enjoyment of local elections. As such it will be exciting to see whether the local political parties such as Boston By-Pass, Nottinghamshire Independents and Working Class Action keep their seats. And whether independents have a year to match 2009, when in the wake of the expenses scandal, more were elected than at any time since the early 1980s. Whatever the outcome, local politicians shape our lives through their decisions. Perhaps local interest groups and independents are doing local politics right and those seeking to draw conclusions about the national stage are doing it wrong. Indeed local politics could be more important than you think.

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