Local Elections in Britain

By Colin Rallings; Michael Thrasher | Go to book overview
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6

Party competition in local elections

INTRODUCTION

The last twenty-five years have witnessed a weakening of the ties between voter and party in Britain. Fewer voters now align themselves very strongly with any political party. Findings from successive British Election Studies, for example, show that the number of respondents who ‘strongly identified’ with one or other of the two major parties has declined from 40 per cent in 1964 down to just 18 per cent, up slightly on 1987, in 1992 (Denver 1994:54). This weakening of party ties has been described as a period of dealignment. Changes among the electorate have produced a steady drift away from the once stable two-party system towards a variety of party systems reflecting national, regional and other differences. In local government, however, this process of partisan dealignment has become entangled with an equally powerful process of party politicisation. Local elections, once infrequently contested by the major parties, have been gradually colonised.

Local government, therefore, became exposed to a number of different, some might say divergent, pressures: first, a period of electoral dealignment where voter loyalties grew weaker and where neither Labour nor Conservative parties could any longer guarantee support from a significant proportion of the electorate. Second, a continuing process of party politicisation at the local level which accelerated during and immediately after reorganisation. The electoral process in some parts of the country, principally the more heavily urbanised, had long been dominated by party politics, but for large swathes of rural and suburban Britain parties were still something of a rarity in local elections. Suddenly with reorganisation, Independent councillors who had served under the old system found themselves pressurised by the national parties, principally the Conservatives, to forgo their non-party stance and contest elections under a party banner. In a sense the existence of new authorities with new boundaries and wider powers offered the equivalent of a politically clean slate. Whatever an area’s electoral past there was a new present and even in those areas where Conservative and Labour had held sway other parties were determined that the old two-party system was not going to dominate.

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