The challenge of combined elections

Local electoral administrators, unsung heroes of democracy, have become used to conducting combined elections in recent years. But May 2021 will present many of them in England with their biggest challenge yet.  

With county council elections and some further mayoral contests added to those elections held over from this year, it will be commonplace for voters to be faced with three ballot papers – one each for district and county councillors and one for the local police and crime commissioner (PCC).

Where there is a local and/or combined authority mayor, then four pieces of paper will be the order of the day. Electors in Bristol and Liverpool, for example, will be choosing councillors, city and region-wide mayors, and a PCC. In Cambridge, it will be representatives for both tiers of local government, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor, and the Cambridgeshire PCC. 

And as if the organisational headache is not enough, voters will find themselves following different instructions about how to cast their vote. 

With by-elections having been ruled out since March (and a recent Cabinet Office circular making it clear that none can be expected before next May), or where there are all-out elections following boundary changes, electors might be asked to cast multiple ballots in their district ward but to make a single cross in their county division.

Any mayoral or PCC contest will involve them in casting preferential votes for their first and second choice of candidate, and an understanding that voting for the same candidate twice could waste their opportunity to influence the outcome. 

The Electoral Commission, local authorities and the parties will all need to be assiduous in providing guidance to electors about how they can participate effectively. 

There will, of course, be heightened interest in the political outcome of the first significant electoral test in nearly 18 months. Opinion polls rather than ‘real’ votes are currently the measure of public reaction as administrations at both national and local level tackle the economic and health impact of the pandemic. 

More prosaically, Labour and the Liberal Democrats each have a new leader who will at last have an opportunity to make himself known more widely. 

The contests originally due in May 2020 will see Labour defend almost half the seats falling vacant in mainly urban England. Will Sir Keir Starmer MP be able to show evidence that the December 2019 breeches in the ‘red wall’ are beginning to be repaired?

The 2021 electoral cycle, on the other hand, is dominated by the shire counties (or their unitary successors) where the Conservatives won almost half the total vote and more than two-thirds of the seats four years ago.

That, though, was to prove a false dawn for Theresa May’s General Election hopes just weeks later.

It is possible that a few counties will not hold elections pending a structural change to introduce more single tier local councils, but it will be the Conservatives on the defence in most of those that do. 

Historically, it has been the Liberal Democrats who have benefited from Conservative electoral disarray in these areas. They have struggled to regain this role since going into coalition with David Cameron in 2010, and Sir Ed Davey’s indication that he will tilt his party to the left may make it an uncomfortable home for any disillusioned Conservatives.

One phenomenon to watch out for when the election results are declared is the extent of ‘split-ticket’ voting. A volatile electorate seems to make increasingly nuanced judgements about which parties or candidates are appropriate for each type of local administration.

Voting the party line for your councillor at the same time as choosing an Independent for mayor or PCC has happened before and may be seen with even greater frequency this time round.

English local elections due in May 2021:

  • 149 local authorities electing just less than 5,000 councillors
  • Casual vacancies in an unknown number of additional councils
  • Greater London Authority election for mayor and assembly
  • Seven combined authority and five ‘city’ mayoral elections
  • 36 police and crime commissioner elections.

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