All Eyes on the Election Prize

By Johnstone, Richard | Public Finance, May 2013 | Go to article overview

All Eyes on the Election Prize


Johnstone, Richard, Public Finance


Less than a month after the government started to make a host of controversial changes to the welfare system, voters will go to the polls across England in a fresh test of support for the coalition's deficitreduction plans. Elections scheduled for May 2 will give residents in 37 counties, unitaries and mayoralties the chance to flex their democratic muscles for the first time since Prime Minister David Cameron came to power and began to cut government spending.

Chris Game, a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, has analysed the upcoming contests. He says the results will reflect mid-term discontent with the coalition as cuts and benefit changes provoke a reaction to the party rather than anger at local councils.

'If I'm a voter, then I have lots of incentives to vote against some of the cuts local authorities seem to be doing,' Game tells Public Finance. "But if you have any sense of how these are coming about, you are more likely to blame the government'

This means the results could be a mirror image of the 2009 elections, as Labour looks to reverse the gains made by Conservatives. Of the 27 counties going to the polls, the Conservatives have a majority in all but one, Cumbria, which is under no overall control.

Game says that Labour, which lost overall control of four of these authorities last time, should be on course to regain at least three - Derbyshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire.

David Sparks, leader of the Labour group in the Local Government Association, says he is hopeful of making gains in these areas. He tells PF the focus of the Labour campaign has been on spending cuts, including welfare cuts like the 'bedroom tax' that began in April.

'I think this year's local elections will be a continuation of the past couple of years where there's a great deal of dissatisfaction with the coalition government in the north of England, and the coalition parties will lose seats.'

However, ¿he impact that spending reductions have in different parts of the country could lead to a Varied' picture, Sparks says. It is difficult to predict the impact of changes such as the localisation of council tax support. 'Different areas have different priorities,' he says.

Gary Porter, leader of the Conservative group in the LGA, certainly hopes the performance of councils that went Tory last time will protect them. But he adds the party is 'bracing' itself for some losses from the high point of 2009, when the Tories gained control of seven councils.

We have got some councils and councillors that we were surprised by and pleased to have won at the [2009] election and are likely to be in the most vulnerable group at the moment But we've been checking on some of the work that they've been doing, and we're pleased with their track record, and we hope against hope that that track record will sustain them'

Porter hopes the party's performance in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire specifically will be enough to repel a Labour advance in campaigns where local issues will be key. The council tax freeze grant offered to councils for a third time by Whitehall and taken up by 60% of authorities, should also help the Conservative cause, he observes.

Gerald Vernon- Jackson, who leads the Liberal Democrats in the LGA, is frank that the party must improve on its recent showing in both the 2011 and 2012 local elections, where it lost 50% of its councillors each time. …

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