We make no claim that this book is definitive, but for the time being at least it is unique. Our objective in writing it has been to provide an overview of local elections in Britain since local government reorganisation in the 1970s and, thereby, to identify some of the most important trends and themes which have characterised their development. The difficulties in collecting and collating electoral data have prevented such a broadly based study in the past, a fact reflected in the research literature. Previously, research has tended to concentrate either on a small range of authorities (Sharpe (ed.) 1967; Bristow 1984), or on one particular electoral cycle (Clark 1977; Curtice et al. 1983; Game 1981; Rallings and Thrasher 1991a; Gibson and Stewart 1992). The creation of the British Local Elections Database has removed such constraints. With information available for every ward in Great Britain over a period of more than two decades we have been able for the first time to describe local electoral developments in relation to voters, candidates, parties and outcomes.
Our analyses can now be summarised under three broad themes, each of which contains the seeds of a paradox which may have important consequences for the future conduct and significance of local elections in Britain. The first of these themes explores the relationship between voters and parties. The second looks at the way in which observers, particularly those in the media, report and interpret local elections and their outcomes. The third considers the democratic credentials of local government and the electorate’s role in the legitimation process and in ensuring accountability. Finally, we will set out some thoughts about a future research agenda for the study of local elections as well as outline possible policy changes which may help to remedy some of the problems with the local electoral process that we have identified.
Survey evidence shows that since the 1960s voters in Britain have identified less strongly with the established parties. Paradoxically, however, as the electorate