The UK local elections for 2013 are now well behind us; it’s been nearly two weeks and two weeks are a long time in politics.
That said, it’s still useful to look at the results and the way the results were reported in the press and to reflect on what this really tells us.
Local Election Cycles
The first thing to say is that local elections don’t happen at the same time everywhere; they always happen in May (or it could be June, if there is a General Election in the same year). But of course not all of the seats in all of the councils are up for election each year.
There is quite a useful page on Wikipedia, which shows the results for local elections in the UK year by year. So for 2013 it shows that elections took place in:
¨ 27 county councils which had all seats up for election; these are areas where local government functions are divided between the district and county council (a two-tier arrangement) and so the county council elections only impact on the political control of those functions exercised by county councils.
¨ Eight so-called unitary authorities; 7 of these had all their seats up for election and 1 (Bristol) had only one third of seats up for election.
¨ One Welsh council was up for election; this had been postponed from last year.
¨ There were also two mayoral elections (in Doncaster and in North Tyneside) and one bye-election (in South Shields).
So, there were lots of councils where there were no elections at all.
The 32 London boroughs and the 36 metropolitan authorities will all vote in 2014.
Of the 201 District Councils (which cover the same geographical area as the County Councils but deal with a different range of issues and services), 67 will elect one third of their councillors in 2014; and 127 will elect all of their councillors in 2015.
Of the 55 unitary authorities, 18 will have elections in 2014 (those are the ones who elect one third of councillors at each election) and 30 will have elections in 2015 (those who elect all of their councillors at the same time).
And then there are the elections to local authorities in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland which are due to take place in future years.
So what happened on 2 May 2013 was an election that had some very specific characteristics; that affects the extent to which it is indicative of political developments across the whole of the country.
The 2013 elections in context
The graph below shows the percentage of seats contested in each local authority type in the 2013 elections:
And the second graph shows the proportion of seats contested across all types of local authorities:
So in total, there were only 10 per cent of all seats being contested. This isn’t to minimise the importance of these elections. It is just important that we keep this in some sort of proportion.
The fact that the majority of the councils in which the election took place are in areas which tend towards the right of the political spectrum rather than towards the left, also makes the result less representative of the political climate nationwide than might have been suggested by the extensive press coverage.
The coverage – and the impression it left
Given the press coverage, one could be forgiven for thinking that the election result was a landslide victory for UKIP. And there is no denying that they did make significant gains in the areas where they did well.
(NB: Please note that the following analysis excludes Northern Ireland because the major parties in Northern Ireland are not the same as the major parties in England, Wales and Scotland).
If we look at the distribution of councillors by political party across all types of local authorities it is still very clear that the three main parties far outweigh UKIP and other smaller parties:
The Nationalist Parties combine Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party.
Looking at the same figures but broken down by political party and local authority type, the picture is reinforced:
But apart from the rather pedestrian conclusion that the Conservative, Labour and LibDem parties are well ahead of any of the other parties in terms of representation at local authority level, it is interesting to note that Independent councillors make up a sizeable number. Indeed, they make up almost twice the number of local councillors as the Green Party, the Nationalist Parties and UKIP put together (and that’s after the 2013 local elections).
There are some local authorities where the independents are particularly predominant -among them, Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, Durham and the Isle of Anglesey.
Another important aspect of any election is turnout. This, too, shows that the news is maybe not quite as startling as it was made out to be. Turnout in local elections generally hasn’t been overwhelming in years when they have not coincided with general elections as can be seen from the graph below.
The local elections in 2001, 2005 and 2010 were held on the same day as a general election. This appears to be the single factor that can explain the differences between those years and the others, which are at so much lower levels.
The 2013 turnout has not yet been published but it is likely to be somewhere between 30 and 35 per cent. So any significant gains by any party in that situation has to be seen against the majority (of somewhere between 65 and 70 per cent of those eligible to vote) who did not show up on the day.
From the point of view of democracy, of political debate and of political participation, it is far more important to ask why such a large proportion of the electorate don’t bother to turn up.
So why the hype about UKIP?
Well, the short answer is that Nigel Farage makes good TV; he is considered quite photogenic; he is good for some outrageous remarks at regular intervals; but, and that’s the more sinister side, the media tend towards a right-wing agenda and are therefore keen to move the political centre to the right. And if the Queen’s speech and the turmoil in both the Conservative and Labour parties are anything to go by, they are having some success.
Those of us who are keen to ensure that the centre of politics moves back towards a more rational discourse need to regain some of the ground that is being moved from under us. Only by doing this can we ensure that equality, the welfare of the most vulnerable, fairness in the tax system (i.e. making those who can, pay more) and good public services are at the core of political debate.