Confessions of a Political Animal

November 19, 2008

A problem of the second order

polling-stationAs we race inexorably towards Christmas and the new year, we are also moving towards the run-up to a new electoral cycle, with European elections and a round of local government polls due in May 2009 – what a political scientist would describe as a collection of second order elections. Such elections are those thought to be considered by voters to be of lesser importance, attracting lower turn-out and being used by many who do turn out as a mid-term referendum on national government (of course, if this turns out to be the date of an early general election, unlikely in my view, then we move firmly into first-order territory).

The problem with such elections is that the real issues that they are supposed to be driven by become more than a little obscured by the heat and noise of national politics – and local elections in particular are prone to this, at least in part because of the apparent managerialism and post-ideological nature of the massively decreased role of local government. It has been said that ‘there is no Labour or Conservative way to collect bins’. Up to a point, this is true, but this is a position based on a very limited perception of what a local authority should be up to.

Coming, as I do, from a left-wing perspective, I much prefer to look at local government in the light of Bevan’s quote that ‘socialism is the language of priorities’. And nowhere are decisions over the setting of priorities more important than in local government, particularly at a time of financial restrictions. The temptation for local government, of course, is to ignore as far as possible the priorities of minorities – those in receipt of social care, meals on wheels or day care, for example – to concentrate on the priorities of the majority: low council tax and an efficient bin service. So, shouldn’t the electorate be making its choice between these two philosophies when it chooses its council? Shouldn’t it be rewarding good governance and removing that which is poor? Of course they should. The problem is that they don’t.

The Animal thought it might be interesting to see if there is any correlation between a council’s performance and the electoral fortunes of its ruling group(s). Each year, the Audit Commission publishes an assessment (the Comprehensive Performance Assessment – CPA) of each local authority’s performance – the most recent such reports are available here. There are two different grading systems, depending on the authority’s size. Smaller authorities are classified as either Poor, Weak, Fair, Good or Excellent. Larger authorities receive both a star rating between 0 and 4 and an assessment of how fast the council is improving. I have put together a table for all local authorities that had any elections in May 2008, comparing the Audit Commission’s most recent assessment (mainly from 2007) and the electoral result for the ruling party or coalition. Because this is quite a large table, I have put it on a separate page.

In May 2008, 122 (by my count) English local authorities held elections for at least part of their membership – these included district, borough, city and metropolitan borough councils. Whilst London Mayoral and Assembly elections were of course held on the same day, there were no London borough elections. Of these 122, 44 had in the previous year received what I am going to classify as low-grade CPA results – these are councils either scoring 2 or 1 star (none received 0 stars) or graded Fair, Poor or Weak. In addition to these, one other council (Doncaster), whilst scoring 3 stars was classified as ‘not improving adequately’, which I have also classified as low-grade, thereby making for 45 councils in all. Now, if the electorate was looking at the performance of their council (and assuming the CPA represents an adequate measure of performance), we would expect the ruling groups in these authorities to fare badly in the elections. However, the opposite is true: on average, the defending parties made net gains3.76% of the available seats. Of the 15 councils that changed control as a result of the May elections, just 5 fell into the low-grade category: fewer than would be expected from straight-forward proportionality. Furthermore, there is little evidence that these results were necessarily as a reaction to the paucity of the council: four out of the five had been Labour or Labour led coalition-held authorities, and the loss of them could simply be the electorate following the anti-Labour trend that was exhibited across these elections. In the fifth example, there were no Labour councillors on the authority – and I’m afraid that I don’t know enough about the politics of West Lindsey District Council (Lincolnshire, in case you didn’t know) to guess at whether the Liberal Democrats’ loss to the Conservatives was due to their council being only given a ‘fair’ rating. 

There is one exception which suggests that in severe cases trends can indeed be bucked. Technically there should have been 6 low-grade councils changing hands in May, but Liverpool Liberal Democrats struck it lucky when, no sooner had they lost their overall majority following Labour’s gain of 3 seats than an independent councillor defected to them, re-instating their majority. Had the Lib Dems lost control of Liverpool to Labour, on a night when Sheffield and Hull switched in the opposite direction, this would almost certainly have had something to do with the fact that, with a 1 star rating, the CPA classifies Liverpool as the worst council in England.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Elsewhere, the ruling groups on low-rated councils were handsomely rewarded by the electorate. In South Lakeland, classified as ‘weak’, the Liberal Democrats gained 4 seats, increasing their majority; in Tunbridge Wells (also ‘weak’), the ruling Conservatives took a further 3 seats; in 2-star Rochdale, the Lib Dems took a further seat, retaining their majority. Meanwhile, in Southampton (4* and improving well), the Lab-Lib coalition lost 7 seats and control of the council; in ‘excellent’ Exeter, the minority Labour administration was ousted after losing 3 seats to the Lib Dems, and in 4* and improving well Sheffield, Labour also lost control to the Lib Dems. In none of these cases is it likely that the final result owed much to the effectiveness of the council, but rather to one particular party being out of vogue nationally, and a couple of others being ‘in’.

Of course, people are perfectly entitled to cast their vote for whatever reason they want – I’m not suggesting we should sack the electorate and get a new one. But a real question does arise here: if, as a ruling group on a local authority, your political future is dependent not on your performance but on that of national politicians over whom you have no control, what price working hard to improve your local authority? The surprise, perhaps, is that so many do put in that effort, rather than that a small number fail to do so.



  1. […] For a country where independent politicians are normally limited to running minor rural councils, to have more than a third of the nation’s directly elected mayors as non-party candidates is quite a turn-up. Of course, to this number we should add Ken Livingstone’s first term as London Mayor. Given the slightly odd phenomena that have arisen from the directly-elected mayor experiment, I thought it might be worth examining the ’story so far’ of the 12 local authorities that have gone down this road, including whether the advent of a mayor has boosted the areas Audit Commission’s Comprehensive Performance Assemsment performance (discussed previously in this post). […]

    Pingback by How fare the elected mayors? « Confessions of a Political Animal — November 27, 2008 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

  2. […] of the parties’ electoral fortunes. The traditional pattern is for European elections, as second order elections, to be used as vehicles for protest votes: thus left parties in government will suffer, those in […]

    Pingback by European Left Watch: Looking to 2009 « Confessions of a Political Animal — December 23, 2008 @ 12:13 am | Reply

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