The roiling debate about Europe and the unedifying race for London mayoralty have overshadowed the local elections in England. But on 5 May voters will go to the polls to elect councillors to metropolitan boroughs, unitary authorities and district councils across England. Some of them are all-out elections following boundary reviews. In 41 English and Welsh police force areas, voters will also elect a Police and Crime Commissioner. Here’s a quick guide to what’s going on.

Council elections

The saying goes that all politics is local, and it doesn’t get much more local than council elections. But like so many aphorisms it is only accurate up to a point. Whilst bins, schools, potholes and council tax are the stock-in-trade of local politics, local elections are also a referendum on the popularity of national parties. This is probably bad news for Labour. In that respect local elections are a useful temperature check on public opinion at a quite granular level – though turnout for local elections tends to be low at around 33 per cent.

In normal times the party in control in Westminster is expected to suffer in local elections as voters grow tired of the government. In 2012, in the wake of George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles budget’, Labour performed very strongly. Yet the doyens of local election forecasts, Rallings and Thrasher, predict that Labour will lose around 150 seats overall on Thursday. Jeremy Corbyn dismisses this saying that he expects no net losses. Even if one accepts that the anti-Semitism storm will have little impact on elections outside of London, and few councils are likely to change control, Corbyn’s prediction is on the Balearic end of the sunny outlook scale.

According to Rallings and Thrasher, gains will be shared amongst the Conservatives (+50), Liberal Democrats (+40) and UKIP (+40). This suggests that the Lib Dems – eviscerated at the General Election – will see a bounce, along with a stronger showing for UKIP. Conservatives will be pleased to be making gains at this point in the electoral cycle. However, commentators, including Lib Dem Mark Pack, note that their model has overstated Lib Dem support in the past. More generally, predictive models were found severely wanting in the 2015 General Election.

Police and Crime Commissioners

Introduced under the Coalition government, the idea of PCCs is to reconnect policing to local people by making the chief constable accountable to an elected commissioner. The PCC hires and fires the chief constable and sets spending priorities. Most were elected in 2012 on extremely low turnouts (around 15 per cent on average). While many voters are unaware of the existence of PCCs, some have gained public profile since then. Just last week, South Yorkshire’s PCC, Dr Alan Billings suspended the force’s chief constable following the Hillsborough inquest citing a loss of public trust.

Candidates come from a range of backgrounds including: former MPs such as Labour’s Vera Baird in Northumbria; County Councillors such as David Munro for the Conservatives in Surrey and former police officers standing as independents such as Martyn Underhill in Dorset. Predictions are tricky, given that the turnover in candidates and a turnout that could be double that of the November 2012 election.

Grass roots: shrivelled or healthy?

The long-term health of national political parties rests partly on the vitality of the party at grass roots level. Local elections are an important test of the ground machine – undertaking a canvass, delivering literature and providing tellers at polling stations is all part of what makes a political campaign tick and MPs in marginal constituencies know that a good ground machine is a critical success factor.

Looking at raw membership numbers, Jeremy Corbyn has attracted tens of thousands of new members to the Labour party (with total membership at perhaps 350,000) but it remains to be seen if this growth in membership will result in deeper and more effective campaigning machine at a local level. There is a difference between signing up to a movement for a few pounds and delivering literature and raising funds which even in the age of mass communication remains important. Conservative party membership is thought to be perhaps 125,000 – but it is almost certainly aging rapidly.

Where next?

Speculation about the future of the Labour leadership has given political journalists something other than the EU referendum to get in a lather about. So almost all reporting on the matter is likely to be through the prism of what it means for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. That is until attention turns back to the EU referendum. This is a shame, because local democracy perhaps should be seen as something important in itself rather than merely data point in the analysis of national political parties.


Polling Station Belsize Park” by Matt Brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0.