When we first planned this book a decade ago the simple truth was that it could not be written. Information about local government elections was both sparse and widely dispersed. Our first task therefore was to compile a data set which would allow the analysis of trends throughout the period from local government reorganisation in the early 1970s to the ever-moving present day. With financial support from the Local Government Chronicle we began in 1985 to produce an annual Local Elections Handbook detailing the results of each year’s set of local elections. Grants from the Economic and Social Research Council (grants nos. E/ 00/23/2117 and Y304253002) enabled us to extend this process back to 1973. The data collection bore initial fruit in 1993 with the publication of Local Elections in Britain: a Statistical Digest (Plymouth: Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre). This volume sets out the electoral history of each local authority in Great Britain on one easy-to-read page, and was produced with the aid of a further grant from the Arthur McDougall Trust. The raw material for this, containing candidates’ names and results from more than 100,000 local elections, has been deposited at the ESRC Data Archive at the University of Essex as the British Local Elections Database where it may be accessed by all bona fide researchers.
Elections buffs were satisfied with the data they had to play with, but many others suggested to us that they needed a guide to enable them to see the wood from the trees. This book is our initial attempt to make some sense of the processes by which local elections have changed and developed in the last two decades. The time and facilities to carry out the analyses were provided through another grant from the ESRC (grant no. R000234540), although they, as we, will be only too aware that we have barely scratched the surface. Our aim on this occasion has been to produce a book which is comprehensive, accessible and does not assume too much prior knowledge or statistical expertise on the part of the reader. We believe that that is our obligation given that most of the data it contains are being put in the public domain for the first time. There are still many questions to be asked about local elections, some of which we address in shorter, academic articles which are referenced at appropriate places in this book. There may even be a ‘theory of local elections’ to expound. The present volume lays the groundwork for that activity.