The increasing importance attached by the media to local elections in Britain should not be interpreted as a revival of interest in local government per se. As a general rule it treats local elections as little more than a dress rehearsal for what it regards as ‘the real thing’, the general election, and its analyses focus on what the results might portend for that event. This attitude is so pronounced that when local results run counter to the perceived national trend they are regarded as an aberration. In the BBC Local Elections results programme in 1989, for example, the presenter, David Dimbleby, used the word ‘shambles’ to summarise his disappointment that the national picture was being blurred by a host of seemingly contradictory local outcomes. Similarly, when national newspapers cover local elections, either before or after the event, there is a bias towards unidimensional interpretations. These focus more on how many seat losses represent a bad result for the government, rather than on how such losses translate into changes of council control and on their impact on policies followed by local authorities. Naturally, this style of presentation upsets those who firmly believe that local elections should be about local issues and personalities. Councillors defeated following a national swing against their party are often quoted arguing, with some justification, that their seat was lost due to circumstances beyond their control and that the result says little about the electorate’s judgement of their own stewardship of the local authority. Some academics have also raised objections to this style of media presentation. As Jones and Stewart remark, ‘It is so readily accepted in the media that local elections are about national issues that the possibility that local issues influence, and are increasingly influencing, the results goes virtually unexamined’ (Jones and Stewart 1983:16). Dunleavy (1990:463) believes that this treatment of sub-national elections in Britain is a product of ‘system bias’—because governmental power is centralised, the dominant concerns of political punditry and psephology are with those parties which are likely to gain that power and with the support they need in order to achieve it.
Are such critics justified in their view? Certainly survey data report that a