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Out for the count

Source: PSE - Apr/ May 16

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), discusses the upcoming local elections and the lack of transparent information available for voters.

It’s surprisingly hard to find good-quality information about the forthcoming local elections taking place on Thursday 5 May. Voters may (or may not) have received polling cards, campaign leaflets through their letter boxes or even found aspiring councillors on their doorsteps, but it’s very hard to find out about the bigger picture: how many seats are up for election in which councils across the country, and what this might mean for who controls the councils we live in? 

The media gives very little indication that local elections are even happening. They tend to get squeezed out by ‘bigger’ national votes like the general election last year, or the EU Referendum this year. That’s understandable, but it is a shame because, arguably, it is the local elections that make more difference to the day-to-day issues people care most about. Who will look after our elderly relatives? Will our children have jobs, the skills to do them and homes to live in? Will our neighbourhoods be clean, safe and prosperous? All these are key questions in the web and weft of everyday life, and are all things that are shaped by the politicians who run our local councils. 

There’s a lot at stake in these local elections. These are momentous times for local government. Councils are implementing a new funding settlement that requires some tough choices. They are moving towards a completely new finance model by 2020. They are working through the implications of new devolution settlements. All this while struggling to provide the daily services that communities across the country rely on.

Of course people vote for individual candidates, but we believe that they should have as much information, as transparently as possible, to help them in making those decisions and in understanding their potential consequences. That’s when democracy works best. 

Yet, amazingly, there isn’t even a single, easily accessible, ‘official’ list of what elections are happening and where. 

Election map 

So at the LGiU, we’ve crunched the numbers ourselves to come up with an election map which we’ll be updating before, during and after the polls with the help of a network of Count Correspondents (check out #outforthecount to find out more about helping us with this). 

Looking at where elections are happening, on the face of things, Labour has a lot more to lose than the Conservatives, with elections taking place in 58 Labour-controlled councils compared to 40 Conservative-controlled authorities. And several of those look vulnerable: Labour has 12 councils out in thirds in which a swing of one to four seats would see them lose control. Bradford, Crawley, Redditch, Rossendale and Southampton need a swing of just two seats for Labour to lose overall control. As these councils are also only out by thirds, Labour would remain the largest party – but without a majority. 

It’s reported that Labour strategists are already briefing that the party could lose up to 200 council seats. Clearly some expectation management is at play here. It’s likely to be a judgment call. How bad counts as really bad? 

The Conservatives look less vulnerable with few councils outside the south east up for grabs. Of course they have their own problems, with the national leadership falling out with their local government base over the funding settlement, devolution and Europe, but these issues don’t look likely to spill out into the election results, at least not yet. 

As we always say, however, it’s a mistake to see local elections simply as an indicator for national politics. They also show us what decisions people are making about local issues, how they are thinking about local aspirations and priorities at a time when the fundamentals of local government are changing very fast. 

That’s why local democracy matters so much, but it is at its strongest when people have all the information they need about who controls their council – and, therefore, who makes decisions about their local area. Right now, that information is simply not good enough. We urgently need to improve it.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Ingrid Koehler   29/04/2016 at 09:34

Events have overtaken us. Now there IS a single site where you can see all candidates for all elections in the UK on 5 May. However, this was only possible due to a number of truly dedicated volunteers who worked literally day and night to collect, clean and publish information on over 12,000 candidates. We will also be publishing the full results, too through an LGiU/Democracy Club project. This will also rely on volunteers. This is an awesome achievement, but also not good enough. At LGiU and with partners, we'll be working to help councils publish this information so it can be easily shared and found. You can help us out by visiting our Out for the Count project.

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