The concept of local democracy is highly valued in the public imagination. Although constitutionally subordinate to a sovereign parliament it would be unthinkable for central government to challenge the principle of a democratically elected system of local government. Surveys of public opinion regularly report that a majority of respondents claim to vote in local elections when the reality is that less than half the electorate actually do. It is indeed a powerful political symbol when citizens conceal the truth for fear of appearing to fall down on their civic responsibilities. Despite the steady erosion of local government’s powers, particularly since 1979, even radical reformers have steered away from a direct confrontation with the elective principle. Support for democratically accountable local government, therefore, lies deep within our political culture. It occupies this position largely because of its historical development. Like other British political institutions local government has evolved its traditions, rituals and legitimacy over a considerable period of time.
The aim of this chapter is to examine the evolution of local democracy with particular reference to the place of elections and voting. It will begin by focusing on the ideas put forward by Victorian reformers who were the architects of a ‘system’ of local government. We will examine the arguments in favour of directly elected local authorities, noting the dissenting voices which demanded that the power of elected representatives should be balanced by some proportion of non-elected councillors. Another favoured method for controlling the pressure released by a democratic electoral system was to pay close attention to the length of the electoral cycle. Throughout the nineteenth century those wanting annual elections to maximise accountability debated with those wanting a longer cycle in the belief that too frequent elections would deter the ‘right sort’ from standing. The complexity of current local arrangements is, in large part, a reflection of the conflict and compromise which characterised this debate more than a century ago. Democratic local government required an electorate, of course, and various extensions of the franchise were introduced to strengthen the association between local taxation and the right to vote. The Victorians were as