William Eichler 21 April 2017

Too many elections? What the General Election means for local polls

Too many elections? What the General Election means for local polls

The prime minister’s surprise General Election announcement has upset many plans and caused much speculation over how far - if at all - national elections will interfere with local polls.

The elections for Whitehall are set to be held on 8 June, just five weeks after polls take place for 34 English councils, 32 Scottish councils, and 22 Welsh councils. In addition, six areas in England are voting for newly-created combined local authority mayors or ‘metro mayors’.

While the close proximity of these elections might appear an alarming challenge, Dr Jonathan Carr-West, the chief executive of the Local Government information Unit (LGiU), is confident in the sector’s ability to deliver.

‘On the one hand it’s a big logistical challenge,’ he explains. ‘It means that for the second year in a row returning officers and other council staff are girding their loins to deliver two elections in five weeks.’

Last year, voters were called to the polling stations in order to vote in 124 English council elections in early May, only to be dragged back out on the 23 June for the EU referendum.

Preparing for elections under such tight time constraints can be a ‘massive logistical challenge’, admits Dr Carr-West, but it’s one he believes everyone in the sector will rise to.

‘I think if you were a returning officer right now you would be heaving a weary sigh anticipating a pretty busy beginning to the summer,’ he says. ‘But you’d also be confident that you knew what you were doing and it would all be ok.’

However, there are concerns. Raising awareness of the importance of local elections is difficult at the best of times. They are frequently treated as polls for national elections rather than, as Dr Carr-West puts it, votes on ‘bread and butter local issues; the stuff that really effects people on a day to day basis.’

‘With the General Election only a few weeks later, our worry is all the oxygen will get sucked out of the local elections,’ he explains. ‘They won’t get very much attention and there’s a risk turnout will be driven down because of a combination of voter fatigue and confusion.’

‘We go through this every year,’ he continues. ‘We struggle to raise the profile of local elections. That’s always an uphill job and I think that hill just got steeper.’

There is a particular danger of this in the new mayoral elections. As part of the government’s devolution agenda, a directly-elected mayor comes in the devolution deals signed between the new combined authorities and Whitehall.

And on 4 May voters in Greater Manchester, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, and West of England will be choosing the mayor they want to represent them.

But Dr Carr-West is worried a turnout suppressed by the General Election would undermine the mandate of these new representatives.

‘Are they going to get a high enough turnout to really give those new people a high enough mandate to establish those mayors on a firm footing?’ he asked. ‘Or is it going to be like the Police and Crime Commissioners who have spent a long time trying to come back from that really low turnout in the first elections for them?’

There is also the risk the mayoral elections - as with the council elections - will become about national rather than local issues. ‘I think those mayoral candidates are going to be forced into campaigning much more around national issues than they would otherwise have been,’ says Dr Carr-West.

And Brexit is going to be an especially salient issue. ‘I don't think Brexit would necessarily be a major issue for mayoral elections, it wouldn’t be people’s first question,’ he says.

‘If you're standing for mayor of Manchester you would want people’s first questions to be about your plans for infrastructure in Manchester or how do you plan to integrate health and social care, not where do you stand on Brexit.

‘I think the risk is those mayors will now have to campaign around Brexit.’

Read our recent feature considering if elected mayors will lead to a rebirth of local democracy.

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