Low and declining turnout is a long-running feature of local elections in the UK. Indeed, the gap in turnout with parliamentary elections is one of the largest among liberal democracies.
This has led to calls for changing the voting system from ‘first past the post’ to a form of proportional representation (PR).
Countries that use PR generally do have higher turnout, but this effect applies more at national rather than the local level. Scotland’s experience of switching voting systems has not unequivocally led to higher turnout.
Critics of ‘first past the post’ believe the system allows single-party monopolies; many electors are unwilling to engage, and smaller parties suffer a disadvantage. It is true that some local administrations have been either Labour or Conservative since the early 1970s but equally the number of hung councils rose dramatically when third-party representation increased.
Do more competitive local elections lead to higher turnout?
One way of exploring this question is to examine levels of by-election turnout after considering a ward’s marginality at the previous May election. More than 7,000 by-elections held since the 1980s are used in this analysis.
The most marginal seats are those where the incumbent party’s winning margin over the second-placed party is 10 percentage points or lower. A second category runs from 10-20 percentage points with safer wards in a third category.
“A far greater challenge is making it relevant for people to vote”
At first glance, there is a relationship between the two variables. Percentage by-election turnout in the two most competitive categories is 33.3 per cent and 32.8 per cent respectively, compared with 29.9 per cent in safer wards.
But these differences in turnout are also present at the previous May elections. In other words, the changes in turnout are identical for all three categories – for by-elections, there is a decline of nine percentage points on average.
We can take this a step further and compare turnout in seats that changed hands with those safely defended.
Anyone involved with fighting council elections will attest there are plenty of highs and lows. The data show that there is an even chance that a party defending a seat with a majority of less than 10 per cent will lose it.
The odds improve in the second category, where the incumbent’s lead stretches to 20 per cent, but some four in 10 of these contests also see a change of party control. Relatively speaking, politics gets a little more predictable in safe seats but even here a fifth of by-elections produce a new winner.
Almost every vote does matter, therefore. Local parties all know this. Do the voters? Regrettably, in most cases it appears not. There are some keenly fought campaigns that do appear related to broader engagement by the electorate, but these are few.
The correlation between by-election and May turnout in seats that changed hands is the same as it is for those that were safely defended. It is as though there was nothing at stake as far as voter participation is concerned.
This is not to say that campaigning is a waste of effort. Election results do not tell us much about individual voters. The level of turnout may be unaffected by competitiveness, but two important effects may be happening within the electorate.
First, some previous supporters of the incumbent party are switching their allegiance to another party for a whole host of reasons.
Second, the composition of those voting in the May contest and the subsequent by-election has changed. Parties defending seats know only too well that getting the vote out is vital but sometimes impossible. Equally, parties with some momentum and fighting to win will get more positive responses from canvassing.
The evidence suggests no easy fix for the turnout problem. Altering the electoral system, moving from partial to whole council elections and using all-postal voting are all changes worth discussing.
But a far greater challenge is not about making it easier for people to vote but rather about making it relevant for them to vote.
During the pandemic, local authorities have been at the forefront of maintaining essential services, a role likely to expand greatly over the coming months.
The next step should be constitutional, giving and maintaining a much stronger role for local government. Were that to happen, then it is highly likely that voter turnout would increase.