This article is part of a series exploring the local and mayoral elections. Articles from the editors, as ever, reflect the editors’ personal views and not necessarily those of Backbench. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on the elections and local democracy more generally. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org with any submissions and/or pitches.
Local elections across England, Wales and Scotland are due to take place on May 6th, which is just over two weeks away. Last May, these were cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but Boris Johnson decided in January of this year that it would be safe enough to hold them by the Spring.
Despite this, they will look a little different from usual as people have been encouraged to vote by post if possible and bring their own pens with them to the polling station. Campaigning has also been a little different, with candidates asked not to go into voters homes and campaigners asked not to gather in large groups and stay two metres apart at all times. Despite all these changes, however, the local elections remain just as important as ever.
In England, 145 local councils are taking part in this May’s election, alongside the London mayoral vote and 39 Police and Crime Commissioners place being up for grabs. In total, people will have a chance to vote for 4,650 positions of power across the country.
Local elections can be confusing, as they are determined by the makeup of the area and the specific powers your council has. It can be difficult to get your head around, but I’m going to try and explain how it works as simply as possible.
How do local elections work?
When you vote in a local election, you have a say in who represents you locally. Depending on where you live, you will have a local government with specific responsibilities. For example, I live in Colchester, a District Council, meaning the people I choose to vote for are responsible for managing bin collections, parks, and local planning. However, York, where I used to live, is a Unitary Authority – meaning their council has the responsibility for all government services.
Therefore, when you place a vote in a local election, you choose a candidate for your council that will have a range of responsibilities, determined by the type of council you live in.
Additionally, some areas have one group of councillors who run local services, and in other areas, these can be split between different groups. It all depends on the area. Local elections usually occur every four years, but this also depends on where you live. Some elect councillors every four years, whereas others elect half the amount every two.
You may be reading this and thinking that bins and parks may seem like a small thing to vote over. But the reality is, the people you elect will shape your area. And on a base level – taking part in the local elections is a way to exercise your right to vote and participate in the democratic process. Turnout is typically far lower than in a General Election because of this misconception that they don’t matter as much. According to a report from UK Parliament published in November 2020, on the whole, voter turnout for General Elections tends to be around 67.3%, compared to just 34.6% for local elections.
However, the pandemic has highlighted local issues for many of us, as we have been more confined to the towns and cities we live in, whether this is noticing more potholes on the roads, littering or a decline in the quality of other public services. Local governments also set the rate of council tax, public spending, and planning applications.
Recently, local authorities were granted more powers over public health by developing their own priorities – whether that be having a health campaign on anti-smoking, mental health or pollution. In the age of Covid, and mainly being confined to small parameters, having a say on local issues is even more critical. But who will these elections be the more significant test for, the current government or Labour under Keir Starmer?
A test for the main parties
Local elections are known for being an indicator of the public’s perception of the main parties. In a time when the government have had more influence over our lives than ever, it will be revealing to see the outcome for each of the main parties. Boris Johnson regained power in 2019 with a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons; this local election will be a vital test to see whether he can clench onto that.
In this election, his party has 2000 seats to defend and will want to keep areas such as Tees Valley and the West Midlands as blue as possible in preparation for 2024. Many voters in the last General Election were first-time Conservative voters, so this will be a test of their loyalty (if they vote, of course) and the public perception of this government’s handling of the pandemic.
For Keir Starmer, this is also a significant election as his party has a lot of work to do before 2024 if they will have a chance of winning back power for the first time in over a decade. These elections are a year into his leadership and could indicate what loyal Labour voters think of his shaping of the party so far.
For Labour, making some gains in Scotland would be ideal, and there are also some important ‘metro mayor’ battlegrounds in Tees Valley and the West Midlands taken from the Conservatives in 2019. Of course, there’s also the Hartlepool by-election which will be a huge test, as Labour just about kept hold of it in 2019, but the Brexit party and the Conservatives narrowed their margin.
All in all, local elections matter. Although issues like bins and roads may seem small – they shape the areas in which we live. During the pandemic, many of us have barely strayed away from our local vicinities, which reinstates the importance of local policies that directly influence us.
Local elections are also a test for the current main parties because they reveal a certain extent of public confidence, but of course, this is shaped by having a higher turnout. Make sure to have your say on May 6th, and remember to bring a pen with you.
To find out more about your local candidates visit the Electoral Commission website.