Think Local 

Enough of Brexit. Avoid thinking about the UK participating in European Elections towards the end of May – might or might not happen.

What do we know with certainty? Only thing we know for certain in UK politics at this moment is that there will be Local Elections, to be held on 2 May, for 270 local councils and six directly elected Mayors in England, and the 11 local councils in Northern Ireland.

It is highly likely national politics will dominate commentary on the local elections in England, particularly on the results and what they will be believed to mean (in the Brexit context, no doubt).

The greatest focus will most probably fall on the Conservative Party, where there is not great expectation of a good election, based on reports to date. There is every possibility that its usual voters simply won’t turn out.

Labour is most likely to make the biggest gains on the night, relatively speaking.

There might be a story around a good performance by the LibDems, having a political space to itself on the committed Remain front (can’t entirely escape Brexit) and always able to make a good local campaign. UKIP, the new Brexit Party and (if it is registered in time) the new Change UK, either have a lack of infrastructure for local campaigning or just aren’t interested in Councils at this stage so won’t make a big impact on the 2nd.

Northern Ireland has a different election landscape. There has been no local Assembly for the past two years, with a blame game being played as to who is responsible for this state of affairs.

Karen Bradley the Secretary of State is being blamed for no movement on the return of the Assembly and no satisfactory replacement in the meantime. Meanwhile, everyone blames everyone else on why there has not been progress on getting the Assembly back up and running.

Brexit features, of course; though wasn’t a reason put forward at time of Stormont’s collapse, and isn’t an impediment to the Assembly returning. Indeed, with Sinn Fein absence from Westminster, the closed Assembly denies it the one chance of a serious voice in the Brexit debate for Northern Ireland, leaving the sole voice at Westminster as the DUP (though Lady Herman keeps herself noticed from time to time).

Local Elections therefore present the only opportunity to vote and elect local representatives who will actually sit and address (a limited number of) local issues.

Local Government in Northern Ireland is very limited. In England, public health, housing, transport and social services all fall under local government. Even with the Reform of Public Administration saw the numbers of Councils fall from 26 to 11 in 2014m in Northern Ireland, only responsibility of car-parks and local planning (the political hot potato of local administration) were added to the existing delivery of dog catching, burials, recreational services and waste disposal services. A lot of time continues to be spent arguing in the Council Chamber about matters over which local Councils have no actual control – statues, “rights” etc.

Not that that stops the Chief Executives and other Council officials in Northern Ireland being well-paid relative their counterparts in England who hold considerably greater responsibilities for services including housing, public health, and social care.

2014 was the first for the 11 rather than 26 local councils. All the political Parties were in the same boat of not quite knowing how to best manage the (STV – pr) vote. Also, the 2014 election was on the same day as the last (though maybe not the final) European Election, which for Northern Ireland is a single constituency (STV –pr) vote.

It is valuable by way of background to take a look at the 2014 elections alongside each other, and the subsequent 2016/2017 elections’ results, before anticipating the 2019 vote.

First thing to note in 2014 is the marked difference between the personality vote within the European vote compared to the Local vote. That is most striking in the ‘other‘ category, where Jim Alister polled 12.1% for EU, but the TUV only 2% locally. UKIP similarly polled 3.9% (Henry Reilly) for EU and 0.4% locally. Even with the two major Unionist Parties the votes were notable by the difference in votes: the DUP had 20.9% in EU vote, but 23.1% locally. The UUP polled significantly stronger locally 16.7% than Europe at 13.3%.

The difference between EU and local elections with the Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein were less marked, perhaps reflecting the greater volatility within Unionism and a more engaged political demos – no matter what is said to the contrary. Though again, to a lesser extent the SDLP did better locally in percentage terms than with the EU vote, Sinn Fein marginally worse.

In both the Assembly and Westminster elections in 2017 the driving force was around who gained most votes – DUP or Sinn Fein – which squeezed the other parties and killed any political thinking beyond a numbers game; though until the Westminster vote Party shares were largely holding firm.

2014 showed that within Unionism there remains a strong grass-roots affinity and loyalty to local personalities, which benefited the UUP greatly. At the same time, when the opportunity arose, voters were not averse to snubbing the Party that fancies itself as the primary voice for Unionism. The UUP and TUV candidates collectively voted 25.4% to the DUP’s 20.9% in Europe.

Of course, move on to 2017 and the electoral map and outcomes are very different. The DUP and Sinn Fein steam forward in the two 2017 elections, and the other parties fight to stand still or not lose too much ground to the big two.

In 2019 the local council elections are stand-alone. What are the points to look for in the results?

Not even going to pretend this blog has a clue where nationalism/Republicans are at the moment on the political spectrum – collectively off chasing Brexit unicorns. Nothing from the pronouncements of either the SDLP or Sinn Fein over the past two years would seem to be at all relevant to what an electorate would expect in respect of local service delivery.  The usual big-up of Sinn Fein prospects are to be found in usual places.

Sinn Fein will want to hang on to the 2017 Westminster vote, but previous elections suggest that could be a challenge in itself.

Had it not been for the realignment with Fianna Fail earlier in 2019 the SDLP might have been expected that its strong local teams (and the SDLP retains pockets of a strong support base) might have performed better than anticipated from the more recent 2017 indications. However, it isn’t clear from a distance whether a vote for the SDLP is a vote for a Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Irish Labour (Workers Party lite) version of the SDLP. Some prominent elected members have stood down, for example Tim Attwood in West Belfast. And electoral rules have bizarrely barred the widely respected Maria Cahill from standing in Lisburn & Castlereagh.

Hard to believe that the muddle in the SDLP, preventing it clearly projecting what it stands for, won’t benefit Sinn Fein which has in any case a far more organised campaign machine.

For all the opprobrium that descends on the DUP from just about everyone, its stand on Brexit, and on most local issues, is not as dreadful to most Unionist voters as many would want it to be. Arguably, on the Irish Language Act the UUP takes a harder stance; and while on “rights” issues the UUP is more flexible (on social issues, where policy is a matter of conscience), the Unionist electorate would regard most rights being claimed as ‘political’ and therefore something to be argued and won or lost at Stormont. Political rights are fine and dandy, but they won’t solve hospital waiting lists.

Westminster’s Easter recess will provide a little space for the DUP to bring back attention on its local council candidates, rather than on its MPs and Brexit.

The DUP navigates the volatility of the Unionist electorate with extreme caution. It has the advantage, while the Assembly has been on hold, to have had a Confidence & Supply arrangement with the Conservative Party. This has delivered on additional funding to local departmental budgets and in specific areas (eg broadband), and this ‘win’ is likely to be punted hard to the electorate.

While the success in achieving the additional funding doesn’t have to be shared with any other Party, at the same time not having an Executive means the Party is unable claim implementation – even so, it is still a message not to be wasted.

Being in the game at Westminster, with lots of TV time, will impress the Unionist voter generally – whether or not it translates to votes. That may well be important in transfers where residual distrust of the DUP in the past may be softening – evidence being the loan of votes in the 2017 Westminster Election.

Like all of the main Parties, the DUP knows it has to keep focus on delivery (from wherever it comes), and local councillors selected are often active and connected to social networks locally.

All that said, the 2017 DUP Westminster `Vote was gained by hoovering up most ‘other’ Unionist votes along with a share of UUP votes that decided to make a point where the UUP candidate had no realistic chance of winning anyway – so no perceived political loss. That is less the case where the vote is not first past the post (FPTP), and were local loyalties are back in play. Even so the number of DUP Councillors is likely to increase despite not reaching 36% of the electorate – a big stretch in local elections, a massive change in electoral base if that happens.

Council elections are a good indicator of reach and reaction to wider issues, and the DUP will be looking closely at outcomes towards any new Assembly, which must surely require new elections at some point given the current rate of steps.

Comment has been made that there are noticeably more younger faces to be seen on election posters – a key demographic the DUP is often accused of ignoring – though overall it is difficult to spot much change in that regard with any of the local Parties.

The UUP has a few new faces – even if some have a familiar name.

That said, the Party probably relies too much on its tried and trusted stable of candidates. Voter loyalty, and with the older voter more likely to head to the polling booth, will possibly bring an element of success for the UUP.  Standing still on 2014 would be quite an achievement, and is potentially doable.

However, not having made much of managing expectations or even putting much of a concerted media challenge to the DUP, an reasonably good election for the UUP will be wasted. True, any definition of a good election would not necessarily be anything other than voters going with the ‘old reliables’, but a more savvy political Party would have spotted the potential and made a political calculation and plan to take advantage of a bit of good news. Maybe it has a plan, but there is no obvious planning or direction evident through media presence or performance at present .

As for all the rest (some charts here)? Alliance is standing much the same number as last time, though heading into more areas to perhaps keep the percentage vote on the upper end of what might be expected – perhaps hoping for a Brexit bounce as consistent Brexit Remainers?

The Greens, People Before Profit on the left, and the new conservative republican Aoutu are hoping to break through here and there. The PUP has significantly reduced its electoral ambitions.

There are a far fewer ‘other’ from Parties taking a chance in 2019, down by over two thirds, perhaps reflecting just how difficult it is to break through when the political conversation is little beyond Brexit and the political space is dominated by two largest Parties. Though conversely, the number of independent candidates has arisen, having perhaps a more assured local personal profile or having more hope than experience.

What might be the story post-election in respect of the Local Government vote? An improvement in the number of seats for the DUP and Sinn Fein will have the usual follow through of how each is best able to protect the Union or bring about Irish Unity – it can’t be both, and isn’t likely to be either. Percentage votes will also be scrutinised in a binary manner, though will probably see a dip for the DUP and possibly also SF which has less far to fall from Westminster 2017. The rest will make the best of whatever the vote shows by seats, votes cast, or percentage comparison. The UUP and SDLP outcomes will possibly be considered better than expected, though expectations are exceptionally low.

In other words, little is likely to substantially change. More of the same.

Council officers will keep the services running, and the demand for ever higher rates will keep being made without much scrutiny by way of recourse to an analysis of efficiency or purpose across the actual spend. Meanwhile the Council Chamber will be used for every opportunity to poke the other side by promoting policy un-related to service delivery or motions on subjects unconnected to Council responsibilities – Sinn Fein is particularly adept in this regard.

Of course the forthcoming Council Elections may be simply a prelude to a European Election at the end of the May which, again being STV-PR, would be brutally fought. The Council Elections will be an indication of how brutal that could get. Brexit is never that far away.







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