Time to streamline Local Election day?

Chris Game

Local authorities in this country are far more accountable to their residents and voters than central government. Meetings are more open, information more accessible, you are told far more about how your money is spent, and there are elections every single year.

That frequency of elections, though, is a mixed blessing. Knowing that there are local elections next Thursday is not the same as knowing whether you have a vote in your area for your local councillors. Our present arrangements are confusing and arguably discriminatory – which is why I want to put the case for having just one Local Elections Day (LED), or at most two, in each four-year cycle. 

In Birmingham we have it quite easy. The law says that Birmingham and the 35 other metropolitan boroughs 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. 

Instead, it’s the year the 27 county councils are elected, in what the law says in this case must be ‘whole-council’ or all-out elections. In Birmingham, we would have been voting for the West Midlands County Council, had the late Baroness Thatcher not abolished it in the mid-80s.

Now it’s just the upper-tier councils in the remaining two-tier parts of England who go to the polls on 2nd May. 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 201 lower-tier districts in these counties (and also the 56 unitary authorities) can choose their electoral cycle: whether to elect their councils by thirds, like the metropolitan boroughs, or in 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, to pick just one example, 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.

My proposal is that voters’ lives would be easier, their turnout at least slightly higher, and local accountability strengthened, if the four-year cycle of local elections was uniform across the whole of England, was based on all-out elections for all councils, with all elections held on the same ‘Local Elections Day’. My fall-back offer would be one every other year: LED1 being for voters to elect their ‘most immediate’ councils – districts, unitaries, London and metropolitan boroughs – and LED2 for those in two-tier areas to elect their county councils and the London Assembly. Neither LED could coincide and be forced to share the stage with a General or European Parliament election – which has been the fate of each of the past four sets of county council elections.

There would be several benefits. The election campaign, both by the political parties and in the media, would have to give greater attention than at present to local government issues and the performance of local councils and councillors. This in turn should raise the public’s awareness and understanding of local government, and in some their inclination to vote. Just as importantly, all voters would have the same number of opportunities to elect their councillors, and would know when they could do so. There seems, to me at least, something seriously unbalanced about a system of local democracy in which ministers think uniform frequency should apply to bin collection but not to voting opportunity.

Chris Game, Associate Lecturer at the Institute for Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham