Why national politics is a mixed blessing in today's local elections

Posted on Thursday 2nd May 2013
Catherine Staite

Local elections will be held today in 34 councils, for 2,362 seats in 27 county councils and seven mainland unitaries. There are also two mayoral elections. Gains and losses will be measured in terms both of seats won and which parties have overall control of which councils. These elections are about choosing who is going to make decisions about the things that affect people's lives close to home – from how clean their streets are to whether they are eligible for social care. However, the national press tend to see local elections as a barometer for the national political weather. They focus more on the risks to the three main parties and their leaders than on the risks to public services in local areas.

Council elections are often an opportunity for those who do vote (turnout may only be about 30%) to express their dissatisfaction with central government, at this midterm point. David Cameron needs to see off the threat from UKIP, who are fielding a candidate for every one of the 1,452 Conservative seats up for grabs. A big switch could have potentially dire consequences for Conservatives in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.

Nick Clegg needs to show that his party is still trusted, at least at the local level, as he defends 481 seats, 333 in County Council and 148 in unitaries. In 2009 the Liberal Democrats tended to come second to the Conservatives but generally did much better than Labour, which was still in power but increasingly unpopular. Labour is currently ahead of other parties in national opinion polls and has done well in by-elections so the question is – will that good performance be reflected in local election results? The answer appears to be ‘it depends’. We now have a very different economic and political landscape but Ed Miliband needs to show that Labour can make a big electoral impact under his leadership. Labour has high hopes in Northumberland, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

The perceived threat to the Conservatives from UKIP may just be in the overheated imaginations of national commentators. UKIP may reduce a Conservative majority in some areas, including Buckinghamshire and make it easier for Labour to take control in others, such as Lancashire. It is important not to get too carried away. Conservative losses were confidently predicted in 2012, before the last round of local elections but their vote held up surprisingly well. It is also important to remember how diverse local politics is, with a growing number of Greens and the ever-present independents, who can tip the balance in many councils.

National attention for local elections is a mixed blessing. It can reinforce the message that this is an opportunity for the electorates to punish the Coalition Government, rather than focus on local issues. The level of turnout, the weather and contentious local issues can all lead to surprising results. In some areas the quality of candidates and their ability to engage and the effectiveness of independents in carving out some space for themselves will all have an impact. With so many variables there seems only one safe prediction: that these will be very interesting elections.

Catherine Staite is Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham.