Saturday, 20 February 2010

What’s Going on in the Marginals? It's the Councils Stupid.

I kicked off this short series of articles on why the marginals might be behaving differently on Tuesday by suggesting that part of the apparent disproportionate swing from Labour in these key constituencies might be as a result of over a million ‘council house tenants’ now being landlorded by independent ‘Registered Social Landlords as the result of the LSVT process.

The Town Hall

It was a quirky and unusual analysis to kick-off with and many of the initial responses reckoned that the reason the Tories might be doing better in the battleground towns was simply because they’re in putting more effort in these seats.

That’s true of course. And this article attempts to help you understand why that might be. The Labour Party tries to claim that effort in the marginals is simply as a result of the ‘Ashcroft money’. But as always, the truth is a little more complicated than that. The Tories just have more people on the ground.

In his seminal 2007 PB post, Blair Freebairn said that “It’s the towns, stupid” and in METHHs where the election will be decided.
That these marginal seats will decide the next election is not news. But look at the pattern the 201 marginal seats highlighted make. They don’t concentrate in Wales, Scotland, London, the major cities or the truly rural areas. They aren’t really regional. They are heavily concentrated in Medium English Towns and Their Hinterlands (METTHs from now on).

For many years Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher in the School of Sociology, Politics & Law at the University of Plymouth have written extensively on electoral systems, results and British politics. Their articles in the Local Government Chronicle and UKPolling have a wide following. And every year their work is used to help compile an authoritative Parliamentary Report into the Local Elections for that year.

So if you want to know what’s been going on in the METHHs during the last 15-20 years or so, Plymouth is the place to start. And particularly in an experimental page hidden away on Ralling/Thrasher’s website where there’s a clunky animation of Local Council Control between 1974-2007

Many people are talking about 2010 being a ‘change election’. They seem to come along every 10-15 years or so, most recently in 1979 and 1997. So, according to Rallings/Thrasher, what was local council control like on the two ‘change election’ occasions?

Click on the pictures to see them bigger

Notice anything? Getting Warmer? No wonder Labour enjoyed a landslide in 1997. There wasn’t anyone left to deliver the Tory leaflets! They'd got a stranglehold on local government.

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the local election results provide a good litmus test of what’s going on in the world of local politics where elections are won or lost.

So, if Andy Cooke’s analysis is correct, there should be some ‘unwind’ from the 1997 Parliamentary elections. If so, I wonder what the Council elections since 1997 are telling us about this.

So let’s do that for the two general election years that followed the Blair's 97 landslide.

Getting Colder. Notice how the number of blue dots seems to be getting more dominant.

And now, let’s fast forward to 2007 and 2009, the most recent year that the districts and counties last elected. Every year the House of Commons librarians publish a research paper into the Local Council Elections, relying heavily on Rallings and Thrashers’ work. Here are the links for 2007 & 2009

[The Parliamentary library seems to have picked-up the mapping responsibilities, which is why the map’s in a different format.]

Crikey! In 2009, there was no red left! That should be telling us something. Here’s some pretty solid evidence for Andy Cooke’s 1997 unwind theory and also the Constituency effect.

However Labour try to spin it, it’s going to be difficult to pin all this onto Lord Ashcroft.

And, from the 2009 Parliamentary paper are the numbers that underline those maps.

The Tories now have more councillors than Labour or the LibDems combined. And more than three-and-a-half as many councils as the principle opposition parties.

The non-political Local Government Association represents the four sorts of councils in England: the Metropolitan Unitaries, the new Rural Unitaries, the Counties and the most numerous Districts. Every week they publish a magazine called First for their members and in the one that followed last June’s election Rallings & Thrasher tell us what happened on page 7.

The local government map is bluer now that at any time for more than 30 years. The Conservatives seized control of all six counties being defended by either Labour or the Lib Dems, as well as emerging as the largest party in the former Lib Dem fiefdom of Cornwall. They notched up net gains of nearly 300 seats.

The Liberal Democrats had the consolation of securing an overall majority in Bristol, as well as picking off primarily Labour seats in councils as far apart as Cumbria and West Sussex. However they did lose about 50 seats overall, not least because of their setbacks in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.

For Labour there was nowhere to hide. They lost more than 300 seats; their share of the vote fell in virtually every division and ward; in 19 of the 34 councils with elections theynow have three or less elected councillors; and they won fewer seats than in the comparable contests at their previous nadir in 1977. In Derbyshire, on paper their safest county, they lost 16 seats following double figure swings to the Conservatives; in Staffordshire they collapsed from 32 seats to just three.

And whilst the table above gives the June 2009 snap-shot, the table and graph below put it into an historic perspective.

It all started to go wrong for Labour in 2003, when the Tories overtook them on local Councils.

Ok, so that’s enough data, what does it mean?

As important as local politicians like to think they are, the most astute know their place in the food chain. Their real value is campaigning for the Main Event. The General.

When it comes to elections, the parties need people to canvass, deliver leaflets and sit outside polling stations. The people who do all of this work are mainly the 'payroll vote' - the local Councillors from councils across the country. And not just councillors, but their friends and relatives. There's quite an army.

And you can see that the Tories now have more councillors that Labour or the LibDems combined. And these Tories are concentrated where the Party needs them most. In the District councils. And the district councils are in the METHHs. And as Blair Freebairn said. “It’s the Towns Stupid.”

No wonder, Iain Dale has been highlighting the pickle that John Denham’s got himself into regarding Local Government Reorganisation. The naked politics of the move has left even neutral observers like the FT’s Sue Cameron breathless.

In 2004 Bunnco met Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. He’s sadly dead now but at the time he was a leading light in Local Government Circles. He told me that that Labour was planning a wholesale move to large ‘unitary’ councils in order to destroy the Tories campaigning base in the shires. Getting rid of the local District Councils would decimate Tory numbers and let Labour wrest control of the LGA. No wonder, Eric Pickles keeps a pearl handled revolver in his drawer. He knows the importance of the Councillor-base to his Party.

Two weeks ago, Tory Council Leaders flexed their muscles in a letter to the Telegraph

SIR – As leaders of Conservative local authorities, we are sick of hearing Labour ministers crowing about how they have helped keep council tax down this year. Readers should be aware that we have managed to keep taxes low in our authorities despite the efforts of John Denham and his department. Labour red tape has led to the unprecedented council tax increases since 1997. The average increase is so low this year through a combination of two factors. First, Conservative authorities have been committed, as always, to efficient and low-cost public services. Second, with every passing year, more high-tax Labour councils are failing at the ballot box.

Labour may try to paint the Tories as novices and untried. But when millions of council tax demands drop onto doormats from the first week of March showing Council Tax has been frozen in many Conservative areas, it’s going to be difficult for Labour to regain the momentum.

The Tories picked themselves up after 1997 as Labour must do now starting at the local level.

And of course, it’s this realisation that is troubling Gordon Brown as he chooses the election date. He knows it’s best for the Parliamentary party to go early but May 6th would at least salvage some councillors from the wreckage in the Metropolitan Councils that poll on that day.

Labour keep banging-on about how there isn’t a single Conservative Councillor in Manchester, conveniently forgetting that Tories control neighbouring Trafford.
But Tories don’t need to win seats in these conurbations to win a Parliamentary majority. They need to win in the METHHs. And as this article has shown, that's where the Tories are in the driving seat for the moment.

Bunnco - Your Man on the Spot


DavidL said...

I've always thought that 1997 was merely the final step for the Tories and that the party had been hollowed out for years beforehand by disastrous local election results. Labour are now in the same predicament. Given the ever greater power of incumbancy in our system (one change of Government in 30 years!) the undermining effect of local government wipe outs is an important factor. I think you will struggle to find a more important reason why marginals are different.

LDS said...

Like all great insights it seems obvious when it is pointed out! Councillors are the most committed activists and of course now there is pay. They carry more weight on the doorstep when you are canvassing and just have more they can say. Good active councillors are the bedrock of any effective campaign. Couple of points if I may-
1-Alongside this cycle there has been a huge change in the structure of local government over the last 30 yrs with very restricted borrowing powers and more statutory duties. Apart from highly charged questions such as planning it is mostly day to day "value for money" issues.

2-I would suggest that the spread of Conservative Local government has been one important factor in detoxing the brand.

Now if Labour want to reverse this they would create larger unitary authorities and replace the current payment for services model with a local income tax...

Anonymous said...


Very interesting, as always, Bunnco. An interesting sidelight on the Exeter/Devon issue too.

It seemed to me that the blue-wash of local councils was very much a protest vote against the government.

I'm now wondering whether Labour will do well at the local elections in May, or whether there will still be sufficient anti-government feeling to keep the Conservatives at this high-water-mark. If the GE comes after the locals, the local result could have a very significant impact - not least on morale.

Matt Wardman said...

>He told me that that Labour was planning a wholesale move to large ‘unitary’ councils in order to destroy the Tories campaigning base in the shires. Getting rid of the local District Councils would decimate Tory numbers and let Labour wrest control of the LGA.

Are Labour nationally really *that* cynical? (*)

Local democracy to be raped and pillaged as necessary to save the political arses of so-called national figures?

I've heard rumblings of this, and I'd like to hear a lot more.

So what of blah-blah Blears and her commitment to "local communities"? Is she just a cynical liar, right to the core of her blessed cotton socks on Expenses?

I was in an abolished Local Authority when Blears did the deed, and the justification for unitary status was a joke.

(*) Equally, I suppose .. are the Tories the same o?

bunnco said...

Some reflections on my PB2 post based on responses here and on the main site

1 I’m not sure that the money from Councillors’ Allowances is as important as the effort that they put-in. I think it’s only the LibDems that force their Councillors to pay-over a tithe to the local party, which is why perhaps OGH has given that particular element so much prominence in his thread-header [on the mainsite].

2 Simply having Councillors and controlling the Councils helps the local Parliamenatary Candidate not least because it aids the air-war. The local press/radio often quote “local Conservative Councillor Fred Bloggs…” and the Council’s own press officers are publishing helpful material daily. This is an under-recognised point.

3 One thing that I didn’t develop in the article sufficiently was that the LibDem’s high-water mark seemed to be reached in 2005. They suffered substantial local losses in 2007 and after. The pretty maps show that quite clearly, particularly in the South and South West.

4 In terms of Councillor numbers, it might be argued that the Tories themselves are now at a high watermark, having hit a glass ceiling. In many areas there just aren’t any more seats to win. In this regard, future elections might show a drop in the number of Tory Councillors.

But if they are at a high water-mark, then at least it’s coincided with the election where they need the greatest number of foot-soldiers.

Lucky David.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bunnco,

Very interesting, I guess you could have a look at the variation in swing by constituency by the number of councillors won/lost in the local authoridy districts during the previous parliament. If you are right then where you have won more councillors you will have a higher swing. Of course doesn't get you anythying like prove. Maybe lots of gains in particular areas due to demographics etc, or maybe local councillors actually do make a difference.

Why own view (being a geo-demographer after all!!) is that demography is destiny. And campaigns, messages, etc etc actually make only a very marginal difference. Large sea changes only happen rarely, and when it happens there is knack all our political masters can do.

Useles geo trivia for you. The cartogram maps used in the earlier years were designed by a guy called Danny Dorling and required a large effort (trading off topologic integrity, scaling and aesthtetics) to get a pleasing affect. Once the councils were re-organised (2008/9?) then the old cartogram boundaries are out of date, because they are hand designed simply tweaking the concerned areas may not work, and you end up having to re-do the whole blomming thing. I guess for that reason Danny's team have not re-done them and we have to make do with boring old equal land area maps.

I have danny's original designs in their native shape formats so I could have a stab at re-doing them and then you could show 2007 and 2009 in similar formats.


Blair Freebairn

Anonymous said...

Stonking good read Bunnco. Thanks.
Ler's hope you're right.

Anonymous said...

A good article. I suspect there is a feedback loop at play in there too, though: the increase/decline in council seats probably reflects the overall changes in popular support, but the effect identified by Bunnco amplifies this.

I think there is a similar mechanism in effect in another idea I have read elsewhere, whereby for every councillor that loses their seat, there will be ten activists lost. This is, I expect, a combination of fewer activists leading to weaker campaigns on the ground - thus lost council seats, but also the fewer councillors representing the loss of the most committed foot-soldiers (themselves and their family/friends, as Bunnco mentions).