Describing the local electoral system in Britain is not unlike trying to describe cricket. Most people when viewing a group (usually males) dressed in white and running, standing, or sometimes sitting, in a field will realise that if bats are to be seen and a red ball is in evidence then cricket might be the activity. The deeper elements of the game will, however, remain a mystery to most observers. They will not know about the many ways in which the batsman can be given out. They will seldom have need to discover the intricacies of the law regarding leg before wicket. The concept of a no ball being called when three fielders are situated backward of square leg would be as alien to most humans as it would be to a Martian. It will also be completely irrelevant to them to know that only one of the authors of this book has ever scored a half century but that the other one has accomplished the hat trick. The local electoral system is similarly confusing but there is a crucial difference between it and cricket. Unless one is actually playing or a serious watcher of cricket, a knowledge of its arcane laws is very much an optional extra for the vast majority of people. Local elections, however, are a key aspect of the democratic process and their outcome affects us all. Even if we choose not to participate in them, an understanding of their character and rules ought to be readily accessible. Currently it is doubtful whether this is the case.
Britain has an irregular, rather than uniform, local electoral system. While many people might be aware that local elections are held each May, the majority would be ignorant about which authorities are holding elections in a particular year. More confusing still is the fact that in some cases elections covering only part of the council area are held at any one time—an election in one ward does not necessarily mean an election in every other ward. Moreover, the cycle and timing of elections, though crucial to public participation, is but one part of the overall system. There is, in addition, the question of how the electoral units are devised for each election. Which body is responsible for the creation of local wards, what criteria are used to construct ward boundaries and what sorts of consequence flow from these activities? Then there is the matter of the election