Could changes in council control swing votes at this election?

Perhaps the popularity or otherwise of local council control is a form of reassurance for people thinking of switching parties.

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Something happened in 2019 that has not happened before. In town after town across England, the voters not only voted against the two major parties, but also positively voted for independent candidates. Not only that, but many of the most successful independent campaigns did the smart thing of putting their place name on the ballot paper. Ashfield Independents, for example, took control of the council, but the emergence of the independent movement didn’t just happen there.

However staggering the result in Ashfield seems, it was perhaps equally a rejection of the incumbent Labour council. Am I right, people of Ashfield? Were you satisfied with the previous council? I’m going to say you weren’t; I can count.

Now consider Bolton council which, for the first time in a generation is now controlled by the Conservatives. People of Bolton, were you satisfied with the previous council? I live in Bolton and I can count…. the answer was an emphatic no.

I don’t want to pick on just Labour. Residents groups and independent parties have taken seats and some councils from the control of both Labour and the Conservatives. The point is they’ve been sending us all a message – namely that they’re not having it any more. And this year they broke through. It didn’t get anywhere near enough attention in the national press, with the exception of myself, John Harris in the Guardian and Jen Williams in the Manchester Evening News, but be in no doubt, this is a very marked change in our politics.

Now think about how this plays out in a general election. With the exception of Ashfield Independents, who I expect to lose in Ashfield, these independent parties are not on the ballot paper. However, the underlying dissatisfaction of voters minded to vote against the two main parties definitely is on the ballot paper. Voters in many areas of the country have spent the last two years kicking the two major parties in the gonads. You might say “Well, that’s just the local elections….this is a general election!” Well, yes but also very much no. Let me explain.

We know voters are moving around more than they ever have. We know people’s level of satisfaction with politics and politicians is at a record low. Ripe pickings for populist movements from the left and right. But also, as we have seen, ripe pickings for fledgling local movements to take advantage of long-standing and deep dissatisfaction with local political control. And also, crucially, reason for the two main parties to believe that dissatisfaction with local council control “could” play part in a voter’s decision pathway in a general election.

Perhaps the popularity or otherwise of local council control is a form of reassurance for people thinking of switching parties. Many voters, after all, have spent the last two years providing us with rich data to show which councils they are dissatisfied with and how they are therefore choosing to vote. If they are dissatisfied with the local Labour or Conservative council, does it interact with how likely they are to switch? Let’s assume more voters than ever before are prepared to switch. They’ll have rich local evidence for the effectiveness, or otherwise, of their council.

So, in Bolton for example, the Labour council was voted down in 2019 and a Conservative council recently took control for the first time since Margaret Thatcher in No 10. If local people are broadly satisfied with that outcome, does it make them more or less likely to vote Conservative in a general election?

I’m not saying on its own it defines seats. I’m just suggesting that I expect those places with deeply unpopular local councils to be more difficult for candidates representing the controlling party. And vice versa, easier territory for their opponents to get a hearing.

Remember also that the timing of a winter election allows six months to have passed since the local elections in May. Enough time for new council leaders to enjoy a honeymoon period, but not enough time for disillusion to set in. Enough time for councils to make good on campaign promises perhaps; tidy up a few parks, and so on. Enough time for those councils that benefitted from the unpopularity of the previous council to show voters that the world hasn’t ended necessarily. That, for instance, going from Labour control to Conservative control, or vice-versa hasn’t been as bad as they may have feared.

Consider also the reverse of this interaction. What if you’re in a broadly popular local council area? Perhaps an area where the controlling party has a good local track record, and in which it’s easier to point to such success as a mechanism through which people are reminded of the good work that party does. The same is true for any party; good local government matters in that it ‘may’ underpin traditional loyalties which are perhaps ready to be lost by voters wary of all politicians.

And then, finally, consider spillover effects. What if, for example, you live in a council area dominated by one party, and that party has just been kicked out next door and replaced by another party, and the world doesn’t appear to have ended? Are you going to settle for the council you have, which you’re dissatisfied with, or are you going to do the same? More importantly, in this election, are you going to consider voting for, for example, the Conservatives as unthinkable, or take a punt because where you live they’ve voted Labour for decades and don’t much think it’s got you anywhere?

I’m not at all suggesting this interaction between local council control and voting intention in the general election will be decisive. Despite all of the above movements away from the two main parties, people may still swing in behind their traditional loyalties. But I’m at least suggesting that it may be more important than anyone is currently suggesting. And for that reason, it’s in my suite of factors to include in my election analysis.

Ian Warren is a co-founder of the Centre for Towns and the director of Election Data. This article previously appeared on Medium.