The other election next month: local election preview

You wouldn’t guess it but lurking behind the parliamentarians’ (actual and wannabe) jamboree there’ll be another election on May 7th. This ghost election will be largely ignored in the media but involves people across England electing around 9,400 councillors onto district councils, metropolitan districts and a few unitaries. Indeed, the only major place in England without a local election is London, plus a few counties in the peripheral north and west. There’s also no local elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Nor in Cornwall, where district councils were found to be surplus to requirements in 2009.

Local authorities with elections next month
Local authorities with elections next month

Although they’ll be buried in the media circus that will accompany the formation of a coalition government to nominally run the state on behalf of finance capitalism for the next five years, local elections may tell us a lot more about the way the wind is blowing and the prospect for long-term electoral change. Parliamentary elections depend on spending power and access to a media that may be ‘free’ but enjoys no freedom. Local elections depend more on enthusiasm, activism and organisation.

The first thing to look out for when nominations close on Thursday will be the number of candidates. How many unfortunates for example will have their arms twisted to stand for the toxic Lib Dems? How many will be standing for the challenger parties of Ukip and the Greens or anti-austerity parties such as TUSC?

Gladstone would have found our current voting system quite familiar, although we have a lot fewer elections these days in Cornwall
Gladstone would have found our current voting system quite familiar, although we have a lot fewer elections these days in Cornwall

Second, what will the likely effect be of combining elections at different levels? In most advanced European democracies they don’t vote for different levels on the same day; in Germany it’s against the constitution to combine Federal and Lander elections for instance. But if it was good enough for the Victorians then it’s certainly good enough for us.

The turnout when there’s a general election will be around twice the normal local election turnout. People who don’t normally bother to vote for their local councillor will be surprised at being asked to vote for one. This traditionally helps the Labour Party, which has more of these ‘can’t be arsed’ supporters. Indeed, in 2001 and 2005, when county council elections coincided with general elections Labour got an artificial boost. This is likely to help them in urban areas but in the rural districts they’re too far behind to make a huge impact and it’s unlikely that Labour will be contesting every seat anyway.

The challenger parties might actually benefit. This outcome could be the result of the current squeeze on them. As that squeeze is ramped up by a breathless media in a tight election, it’s possible that those tempted to vote ‘tactically’ (pointless in any case outside a 100 or so constituencies) will salve their guilty consciences by using the locals as an opportunity to vote for their real preference, be it Ukip, the Greens or others. This is even more likely as a large proportion of district council wards elect two or three councillors, providing plenty of opportunity for splitting the ticket in novel ways.

Of course, this could also have the effect of making it even more likely people succumb to the threats and promises of the ConLabs and waste their parliamentary vote by using it ‘tactically’. Nonetheless, look for possible Ukip and Green gains in the local elections even if a general election breakthrough still eludes them.

In Cornwall, we can only look on from the sidelines, enviously or thankfully, apart from at Camborne Treswithian and Constantine, where there are by-elections. Our district councils were unilaterally destroyed and the number of elected representatives slashed by two thirds from 332 to 123 by Labour and the Lib Dems in 2009. Is anyone in the austerity Con/Lab/Ukip/LibDem consensus suggesting the restoration of local democracy?

I thought not. Quite the opposite; voices from that neo-liberal consensus sagely inform us that we still have too many, not too few, representatives, despite the 63% cull in 2009. In fact, as Cornwall Council is effectively run by a coalition of developers and council bureaucrats, we might as well save even more money by getting rid of local elections in Cornwall entirely as befits our colonial status.

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