We saw in the previous chapter how party competition intensified in local elections after 1973, spreading outwards from the cities into the suburbs and then into rural Britain throughout the period since reorganisation. In some authorities this development has been resisted but the number of areas where non-partisan candidates dominate proceedings are steadily dwindling. But the degree of party competition is only part of the story; we must also discover the impact on local voting patterns such expansion by the national parties has made. Clearly, other parties have joined the local electoral battle but how much success have they had in breaking the stranglehold exercised jointly by the Conservative and Labour parties? There are a number of ways in which we can answer this question. First, by measuring vote share we can obtain a sense of how far and how quickly voters deserted the traditional two-party system for something different. Interesting though such an analysis might prove it still leaves open the possibility, particularly with Britain’s electoral system, that voter support has not translated into greater representation for other parties. A second approach to the question, therefore, will be to examine the extent to which a change in the distribution of the vote has been translated into a change in share of seats for the various parties competing in local elections. This will take the analysis further but, in the end, votes and seats are simply means to an end. For local parties the ultimate goal is to take political control of the local authority. We need, therefore, to describe the impact growing party competition has had both on the overall number of councillors for each party and on the number of authorities under their respective control. Only when we have examined changes in vote share, seat share and council control will we be able to assess the importance of trends in effective party competition in British local government since reorganisation.
This chapter will address the three themes of votes, seats and political control. In keeping with the structure of the previous chapter we have chosen to organise our discussion of votes and seats in terms of the separate areas of the London boroughs, metropolitan boroughs, English shire districts and counties.