With the counties going to the polls on May 2, Chris Game argues for an overhaul of the electoral system at local level.
There are so many great things about living in Birmingham – its ethnic diversity, canals, baltis, the Christmas market, Iron: Man, the Clent Hills, the Wellington real ale pub – that it’s hardly surprising that one sometimes gets overlooked.
But beyond the boundaries of the metropolitan West Midlands there are many – yes, there must be – who envy the fact that we elect our esteemed city councillors one-third at a time and so have local elections in three years out of four with a fair degree of predictability.
It’s not the council’s doing. The law says metropolitan boroughs like Birmingham have to elect their councils by thirds. So most years, even if we choose not to use our vote, we at least know we’ve got one not to use. This is the year we don’t have one.
It’s the year the 27 county councils are elected, and in which, had the late Baroness Thatcher not abolished it in the mid-80s, we would have voted for the West Midlands County Council.
Now, though, it’s just the upper-tier councils in the remaining two-tier parts of England. In the West Midlands, with Shropshire now a “whole-county” unitary authority, this means Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire.
It’s in these so-called shire counties that real voting confusion can arise. The lower-tier districts in these counties can choose their electoral cycle: whether to elect their councils by thirds, like the metropolitan boroughs, or in whole-council or all-out elections like the counties. Naturally, they choose differently, and in doing so confuse all voters and, I’d suggest, discriminate against many.
In Worcestershire, if you live in Bromsgrove, Wychavon or Malvern Hills, you elect your district councillors in all-out elections every four years – most recently in 2011. But in neighbouring Redditch, Wyre Forest and Worcester they elect theirs by thirds, and their voters get to vote maybe three times as frequently. They might see it as an opportunity, a duty, or a chore, but it fits uneasily with the idea of democracy being about equal voting rights.
Warwickshire’s even worse. Rugby and Stratford-on-Avon voters get to exercise their democratic voice three times as often as those in Warwick and North Warwickshire.
Then there’s Nuneaton and Bedworth (N&B) in a little electoral world almost of its own, electing its council biennially, or every other year – a lesson to us all, I’d suggest, for trying too hard to win brownie points from government ministers.
Back in 1998 the Blair government produced proposals for reforming local election arrangements. In two-tier areas of England, both counties and districts would elect their councils by halves every two years – county, district, county, district. Every elector would have the chance to vote every year, and local accountability would be maximised. I was in favour, as you’ll see later.
By chance, 1998/99 happened to be N&B’s turn for a periodic electoral review by the Local Government Boundary Commission – a good opportunity, the council felt, to anticipate the Government’s legislation, introduce biennial elections based on two-member wards, and simultaneously cut councillor numbers from 45 to 34.
You can guess the rest. Yes, N&B’s reform went ahead, but the Government’s didn’t, leaving N&B and a handful of other authorities as an aberration and a quiz answer for nerdy political scientists.
Returning to Thursday May 2, we have the county councils as the main feature. Supporting acts include a few all-out unitary authorities – mainly former counties that became whole-county unitaries in 2008/09: Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire, Wiltshire – plus elected mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside.
And that’s about it. A light electoral year, which sounds as if it might represent a let-off for any party struggling in the opinion polls – but in this case almost certainly doesn’t.
These all-out councils were elected in 2009, when the Labour Government was struggling piteously. There were were leadership plots against Gordon Brown, some ministers were in trouble over their parliamentary expenses, others were resigning like proverbial rats from an apparently sinking ship – and that was before the elections.
In the pre-election opinion polls the Conservatives had a 16-point lead over Labour: 39 per cent to 23 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent. As usually happens, the election results reflected the polls, and the Conservatives, the dominant party in this tier of local government anyway, gained majority control of 26 of the 27 counties.
The exception was Cumbria, where the Conservatives are comfortably the largest party but lead an interesting power-sharing administration of Conservatives, Labour and an Independent, with the Lib Dems in opposition.
The Conservatives’ biggest triumphs were those counties where they gained, rather than simply retained, control: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire from Labour, Warwickshire from Labour minority control, and Devon and Somerset from the Liberal Democrats.
Today, it’s the Conservatives who are lagging in the polls. They trail Labour by 11 points, with 30 per cent to 41 per cent, while the Lib Dems are battling it out with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on around 12 per cent.
These figures represent a nearly 14 per cent swing since 2009 from the Conservatives to Labour, which means that the Conservatives are bracing themselves to lose a great many seats, while Ed Miliband’s party are aiming at least to win back those councils it lost last time – including Staffordshire, though that loss was about as bad as they come.
As in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Labour had been in majority control of Staffordshire since 1981. Before the 2009 elections they held 32 of the 62 council seats. The next day the Conservatives had 49, while Labour had plummeted to just three – one fewer than both the Lib Dems and UKIP.
UKIP are what President Bush’s candid Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, might call the big known unknown in these elections. They’ll be far more visible than ever before, with candidates in nearly three-quarters of all seats – over five times as many as in 2009, almost as many as the Lib Dems, and in several counties more than Labour.
Their particular threat, though, is that no one knows for sure where their votes will predominantly come from, which of the major parties they’ll damage most, and where.
Just three years ago, Staffordshire, and Newcastle-under-Lyme in particular, had the highest concentration of UKIP councillors in the country. That peak has passed, but they’ll be fielding well over 50 candidates next Thursday, up from 22 in 2009, while the Lib Dems have 37, and the Greens are down from 28 to just 11.
The Conservatives will be campaigning on having set the lowest county council tax precept in the country – which is true, by 0.005 per cent: Staffs £1,027.25; Somerset £1,027.30. Too close to be credible? I just wonder if they waited till Somerset had gone public on its figure.
Warwickshire could provide the closest race of all in these elections. Politically, it’s one of the few really marginal counties, the Conservatives maybe having the edge in votes, but Labour having run the council for longer in recent years as a minority administration. That’s at least the position they’ll be seeking to regain, by winning back as many as possible of the seats they lost in 2009, but it’s a big ask.
At present the Conservatives hold 38 of the 62 seats and Labour just 10. Nine of those Conservative seats would revert to Labour with only a five per cent swing, while one of 10 per cent could bring a further three. But that would still leave the Conservatives as the largest party.
The Lib Dems, currently with 11 seats, ought to be a much stronger presence here than UKIP, and it could be that the final result will turn on some of the closer Conservative-Lib Dem contests in Stratford.
In Worcestershire, Labour’s task on paper looks no more daunting than in Staffordshire – attempting to topple a formidable Conservative majority from a current base of just three councillors. History and the detailed arithmetic, though, suggest otherwise.
There should be some easy pickings for Labour, especially in Redditch and Bromsgrove, but this is a council that the Conservatives controlled even before 2009 and they should hold on for at least four more years.
Which brings me back to our electoral cycle and its irritations. Wouldn’t voters’ lives be easier and their turnout in local elections at least a smidgeon higher, if the four-year cycle were uniform across the whole of England, and based on all-out elections for all councils being held on the same ‘Local Elections Day’ (LED)?
There could be one LED either every four years, or, as the 1998 Labour Government proposed, every other year. Neither LED would coincide and have to share the stage with a General or European Parliament election, so the election campaign, both by the political parties and in the media, would have to focus more on local government issues and the performance of local councils and councillors.
We’d all have the same opportunities to vote, we’d all know when to do it, and the elections would be genuinely local. It sounds really revolutionary, I know, but isn’t it worth a try?
* Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham