Every general election is decided in the marginal parliamentary constituencies. The public, and sometimes even political insiders, have the impression that the main parties command armies of campaigners which can be directed with precision. In the imagination, we have Lynton Crosby and Greg Cook playing first world war generals and moving model armies around a table-sized map of the battlefield.
The reality is a bit different. There are no vast armies, but a comparatively small number of very motivated, active people volunteering their time for little reward. The most active and politically interested among them will be happy to travel around to marginal seats, and exercises such as the Three Seats Challenge supported by Progress are fun and make a big contribution to Labour’s efforts in marginal seats and you can donate here. It is unfortunate that the electoral system means that the rewards from campaigning are such a postcode lottery, but an extra Labour vote prompted by a doorstep conversation in Kingswood does much more to help the return of a Labour government than an increased majority in neighbouring Bristol East (no matter how much Kerry McCarthy may deserve it).
However, most activists prefer to campaign in their local area. It is less demanding on scarce time and also, for many people, political campaigning is a part of being an active citizen in their own community. The tension between the party’s overall interests and the individual’s preferences and interests is particularly acute for councillors and council candidates who will also be facing election on 7 May.
For councillors representing areas in marginal seats, there is not much of a conflict of interest – their advocacy for the parliamentary candidate is probably most effective in their own ward. There are some drawbacks occasionally – councillors may try to bargain with wavering voters to split their vote, and sell out their parliamentary running mate, and there were instances of this for Labour in 2010. But in the 2015 election campaigns in crucial seats like Ipswich, Erewash and Blackpool North & Cleveleys will benefit from the Labour councillors elected in 2011 fighting hard to defend their seats and maximise the constituency Labour vote.
However, in other areas councillors will want to defend their own patch rather than travel around to the marginal seats, particularly if their own seat is at all endangered. This will also mean that the significant number of people who are involved in party activity through friendship with other local activists and councillors will be reluctant to be moved around the map for reasons of national strategy. For example, Labour councillors and their allies in Derby and Nottingham – Labour cities floating in a sea of target marginals – will be less attentive to pleas for mutual aid than in years where they do not have to face elections themselves. But activists in London, where there are no local elections and it is easier to travel to target seats, may be particularly inclined to head for the likes of Ilford North, or Croydon Central – or for that matter Stevenage or Thurrock.
The Conservatives, having fewer activists (and also fewer councillors in place in the marginal seats), may end up suffering more than Labour from the council elections being at the same time. The seats that are up in 2015 include a lot of district councils in the shires, where the Conservatives did reasonably well in 2011, the last time these seats were up for election. Conservatives in safely Tory councils like East Hertfordshire may be a bit less willing than usual to go to pound the pavements of Harlow and Stevenage.
The effect of the pattern and timing of local elections on the general election is probably fairly modest; it is an influence on levels of activism, which in turn is an influence on the result, but there are a lot of other factors involved. However, the influence is quite strong the other way. Local election turnout is around half that for general elections, so when they coincide the higher turnout changes the local government election map.
Smaller parties tend to do better in low-turnout local elections, because their supporters are often more motivated. They get swamped when the general election turnout coincides with the local elections, as the Greens did in London in 2010. In some areas there are long-established differences between local and national voting patterns, which are eroded in general election years. Labour can hope to benefit from this in some areas in the 2015 local elections, for instance in Walsall where overall control has eluded the party, and Wirral. But there are also areas where a latent Conservative vote can appear in general election years, such as Stevenage. Voting behaviour can differ considerably in some areas even on the same day, often to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats locally but not nationally (as in Gloucester and Watford). It will be interesting to see what happens to the Green vote. In the 2010 election, their vote was around 10 per cent in many inner areas in the local elections but 2 per cent in the general election; the differential may well work the other way in Brighton in 2015.
It is diverting to think about the impact of local government and local elections on the national contest, but the effect is slight at best. The prosaic truth is that the general election dog wags the local election tail, and hardly ever vice versa.
Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. He writes the Poll Positions column as part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority and tweets @lewis_baston
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