Local Elections 2009

So about a third of England is off to the polls again next Thursday to inflict what is increasingly looking like it’s going to be another drubbing for the Labour party as declining support for Labour (currently at its lowest level since last June) is reflected in local election (and European) votes. With just under half of the statutory income to VCOs coming from local government [1], the results of these local elections are important to the VCS for a number of reasons. They are also likely to reveal wider concerns about the state of British politics and add to growing uncertainty about the fate of the Labour Party.

Dwindling numbers…

Labour has been steadily losing ground in local elections since 1997. From controlling more than 200 councils and having almost 11,000 councillors when Tony Blair first came to power, they have slumped to figures of 48 and 5,000 respectively. [2] All the polls are suggesting that next week’s local elections will mark yet another twist in Labour’s downward spiral at council level. With only 4 out of the 27 councils up for election currently Labour controlled, and the Conservatives controlling 23 of these, a further swing to the Tories looks incredibly likely. The Conservatives already control almost double the amount of local councils than Labour do in England, though Labour fares better in Scotland and Wales. [3] Current predictions put the national equivalent vote share for the Conservatives at 40% (a gain of 9 councils since 2005), Labour, 25% (down 9), Liberal Democrats 27% (no change). This would involve the Conservatives gaining 300 seats and Labour losing 250, including control of all of their remaining county councils, except perhaps Derbyshire. As most organisations’ relationship with government is at a local level, what questions do these local elections present that your organisation might want to consider or plan for?

….that are slowly turning blue

So as local councils across the country all gradually turn blue, organisations operating in the last few Labour strongholds up for election this week and in the future may need to think about how they would fare under the Conservatives. Other Conservative local authorities and the London Mayor may give you an indication of how a Conservative administration would be run. Can you look at these councils and identify any common themes and policies which might have an impact on your organisation if rolled out nationally? How would your organisation respond to these?

Many colours or shades may…

The repercussions of the expenses scandal has meant that generally low levels of trust and faith in politicians are at an all-time low. This is likely to result in many people simply deciding not to vote at all, disillusioned with politicians of all colours; further exacerbating falling levels of public engagement in politics. The average of people likely to vote is at its lowest point since the last election with only 45% ‘certain to vote’ according to a Populus poll. Voter turnout is typically lower for local elections than general elections anyway.

Another likely scenario is that people choose to make a protest vote by voting for the minor parties, with the obvious worry that radical, extremist parties win more seats, particularly in certain areas. Minor parties and independent candidates tend to win more votes in local elections than general elections as it is. However, a greater choice of candidates may also provide more of a range and diversity of quality candidates who may bring in new positive ideas for the area. In this environment, the likelihood of more councils with ‘No Overall Control’ or coalitions councils seem quite likely. This will have implications for decision making at a local level; inevitably lengthening the decision making process and impacting on the overall vision for the local area. This can make lobbying, influencing and navigating through the already complicated structures of local government even more confusing for the VCS. (See the driver on partnership working and governance.)

If your council does become ‘No Overall Control’, your organisation may need to spend time building new relationships with new councillors from a variety of parties. Can you define your strategic priorities in terms of who you need to influence? Can you share information on local governance structures and workload with other organisations in your local VCS networks, particularly as they change? NCVO have produced a NCVO Local Government Manifesto; can your organisation use or build on this to help your organisation influence, lobby and hold your local council to account?

…lead to changes at the top

Losses in the local elections combined with the repercussions of the expenses debacle and Brown’s diminishing popularity means a Cabinet reshuffle, in a last-ditch attempt to boost Labour’s popularity, is looking very likely. Changes in personalities will result in changes in policy areas and new initiatives. A reshuffle will mean that priorities will have to be revisited which can be expected to impact on the progress of any Bills currently going through parliament. Again, this has implications for how VCOs influence at central government level and the relationships they have built up with MPs or their advisors. The level of success of another reshuffle at stifling discontent amongst the party, the public, as well as any potential leadership challengers in order to secure a general election victory remains to be seen. Either way, the state of flux affecting both national and local politics at the moment, seems set to continue in the near future.


[1] The UK Civil Society Almanac 2009 [back]

[2] LGC Elections Centre, University of Plymouth [back]

[3] LGC Elections Centre, University of Plymouth [back]

Last updated at 09:55 Tue 02/Jun/09.
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Specialist Editor

Less blue, more rainbow?

The Independent today summarised its poll which shows the Conservatives as having lost a great deal of ground to a spread of minority parties due to the increasing mistrust borne out of the expenses scandal (more details of the survey are here). This would increase the likelihood of 'No Overall Control' councils.

In terms of Cabinet-level reorganisation, it will be interesting to see whether Darling can keep hold of his job, given the recent exposure of his expenses claims and the understanding that Brown is keen to replace him with Ed Balls. This seems relatively unlikely, as the party faithful are apparently mistrustful of the extend of Balls' own leadership ambitions, but were Brown to trust his own instincts, it would lead to a change in financial direction at the treasury and leave an opening in DCSF, both of which would impact on the sector.

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