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What motivates voters in local elections?

28th March 2018

On Thursday 3 May local elections are taking place across England with a mix of metropolitan, unitary, borough and district councils and the mayoral elections in the Sheffield City region, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford. Christopher Peacock, Head of Grayling Manchester, shares his thoughts on what motivates the electorate at local elections.

Local elections always have a lower turnout than general elections. Voter apathy of yet another election and general malaise on the importance of local government sees fewer people cast their ballots for the hundreds of local council seats and few mayoral positions up for grabs. But for those who do decide to vote, what are their key motivations?

  1. National Issues

Despite local government having very little influence over national issues, the public do like to cast their vote over what the political parties are doing nationally. In the vast majority of mid-term elections, the sitting government will suffer defeats to their local council candidates as the electorate tactically vote for, or against, how successful they see the government’s current activity. Similarly, four years ago UKIP hailed their success at the local elections with over 150 councillors elected. Following the collapse of the party, those that remain from the 2014 cohort are expected to be wiped out across the country as they struggle to find yet another leader.

  1. Brexit

Despite fatigue over what seems to be the endless negotiations, how Theresa May is handling Brexit is going to be a key focus of this election. The overwhelmingly pro-remain vote in London is expected to turn against the Conservatives and Labour is preparing for big wins in local authorities which had normally been considered strongholds for the government. Look out for results in Hillingdon, Wandsworth and Westminster to see how successful the Labour campaign has been.

  1. Party Leaders

Whatever the election, be it general or local, the perception of the party leader is extremely important. At the general election in 2017 this massively backfired for Theresa May whose strategy of focusing on her strong and stable leadership ultimately showed her as being anything but. Despite her difficulties the Prime Minister’s showing in polls have improved in recent weeks, but that has probably been more down to the performance of the Leader of the Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and his stance on Russia has reawakened questions of his leadership which had all but diminished. The Labour leader may welcome the local elections as an opportunity to move on from these negative headlines, but he might not be able to shake them off when the polling stations open.

  1. It’s all local

The difficulty with looking at local elections from a national perspective is that any analysis can’t take into account the influences at a local level. Complaints about whether bins are being collected or potholes being left empty are a considerably motivating influence to the electorate. Despite nationally performing poorly in the polls, the Liberal Democrats will make some significant wins in local government. In some boroughs of London and even the successful Labour city of Manchester, the Lib Dems are likely to make gains. Why? Because one thing the Liberal Democrats do very well is focusing campaigning on local issues, not national.

On the 4 May all of the political parties will claim success in some way. The government will argue that it “wasn’t as bad as it could have been” or cite the gains they’ve made from the collapsed UKIP vote as a vindication of Theresa May’s leadership. Labour will point to the success in mayoral elections and London as proof the country is ready for an anti-austerity Labour Government. And even the Liberal Democrats will show how compared to the same elections four years ago, they’ve increased the number of councillors they now have. Somehow, everyone will be a winner.


Christopher Peacock

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