Local elections: Are we reading too much into them?

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Image Description: Leicester town hall, one of the mayoralties contested in the election

The 2019 UK local elections have presented voters, election-watchers and newspaper pundits with an interesting set of results to pore over: from over 248 councils electing councillors on Thursday, the Conservatives have lost over 1200 councillors, with the main beneficiaries being the Liberal Democrats who gained almost 700 councillors. Labour similarly suffered losses, while the Greens and Independents saw significant gains as well. The results have inspired punditry from across the political spectrum, as with every election; The Guardian has run pieces on how this election proves that the Lib Dems are primed to regain territory they used to dominate in in the next general election while The Telegraph has published articles ranging from suggesting that Labour is in trouble in its traditional northeast heartlands to the potential for a Labour-SNP coalition running the country after the next general election.

What binds all these opinions together is a common belief that the local elections will be able to effectively serve as a guide to the future of the UK political landscape and of general elections to come. Most major news sites seem to take the results as clear indicators of political parties’ viability in potential upcoming general elections. Sky News, for example, has taken the results and calculated a national equivalent vote figure (if people had been voting across Britain as a whole), suggesting that a hung parliament would result once again but that Labour would be the ones running a minority government instead. Never mind that such forecasting, as with many others, make broad generalizations based on vote share and ignores the intricacies of a first-past-the-post system of the UK. To take these at their word it would suggest that the Conservatives are headed for a significant loss in their number of MPs, the Lib Dems (having gained 11 councils) will see huge gains in their number of seats and that Labour is potentially in trouble because they had been hoping to gain rather than lose seats.

Local politics has become yet another aspect of the nation’s life warped and deflected by national political psychoses, in this case seemingly the issue of Brexit.

At the same time, many have also opted for the slightly safer and less bold analysis that this reflects growing anti-establishment anger at the main parties, but their analysis still returns to the suggestion that the major parties will lose many seats at the expense of smaller parties at the next few elections. However, one could point out a few issues with such readings of the result. Most important would be that voter turnout was only 36.3%, a far cry from normal general elections turnout that average around 70%. Taking the political views of a portion of the population to represent the general perspectives of the public should be regarded as potentially vastly inaccurate and unrepresentative, yet this is the mistake repeatedly made with any electoral result. Furthermore, despite the dominant narratives of widespread anti-establishment anger and potential losses for the main parties, they still have twice the number of councillors as all other parties and independents combined. Other punditry, for example that Labour is in trouble because it lost seats, should be understood in the context of a net loss of 63 seats, barely 3% of the 2020 seats they ended up with. Much of this can be understood as inflected through the expectations game; the Conservatives were expected to lose councillors, but not this many, Labour was expected to be gaining seats because if it were to form a government in Parliament it needed to gain seats, and the Lib Dems were not expected to make such a significant gain following the dominant narrative of its fall in the 2015 and 2017 general elections. These expectations and narratives, however, have been crafted and shaped by the very same political commentators and pundits that are now making bold predictions about what the results tell us; the talking heads talking at one another. More careful look at the results would suggest a more tempered understanding of them as well as cynicism of their implications on national politics.

Yet this speaks to a larger issue than simply whether forecasting for future elections can be as black and white as it is taken to be. Local politics has become yet another aspect of the nation’s life warped and deflected by national political psychoses, in this case seemingly the issue of Brexit. Such an overwhelming focus on what we can glean about the national political landscape has arguably been created by the news media, with its incessant focus on attention-grabbing headlines out of Westminster. At the same time, many other factors contribute to this, including party politics and structures as well as a collective public partisanship. We, too, are at fault of seeing politics as a sport, with its “overwhelming wins”, “crushing defeats” and “massive losses”, and in which we want to see our side win. This has contributed to increasing partisanship but also a public consciousness unable to focus on anything else but politics, undoubtedly worsened by the national news media and Brexit but which we willingly participate in. Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, rightly points out that our focus on national politics has pushed aside important issues surrounding local government, especially the austerity crisis and its impact on local public services. We seem to have sacrificed our bins for Brexit.

Image Credit: Andrew Norman