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FEATURES - BACKYARD POLITICS

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Parliamentary by-election candidates have been battling it out, but what really counts is local feeling, say Colin ...
Parliamentary by-election candidates have been battling it out, but what really counts is local feeling, say Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

The parliamentary by-elections in south Wales and south London last month provided yet another reminder of the truth of former House of Representatives speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum that 'all politics is local'.

In Blaenau Gwent, where Labour luminaries such as Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot used to enjoy unassailable majorities, the electorate chose to persist with an Independent local MP rather than to put their trust in a national party.

In Bromley & Chislehurst, in a contest which had almost no attention in the national media, there was a bitter battle between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on the ground - often focusing on which candidate was the most 'local' and which was most likely to offer service to his constituents as a full-time MP.

Although the turnout in neither case was spectacular, it was better than it might have been if the campaigns had been sterile, centrally directed affairs. In local government in particular, elections are often won and lost by how people think about the issues in their own backyard and by their perception of which candidate will best represent them.

For those reasons the news that the Electoral Commission is proposing that the rules by which it is obliged to conduct electoral reviews should be made more flexible is welcome indeed (LGC, 29 June).

Although it is a fundamental principle of democracy that each vote should be of equal value, the concentration on mathematical exactitude in ward electorates which characterised periodic electoral reviews during much of the 1990s often ended up pleasing nobody.

With most authorities over-estimating the potential for electoral growth in their area, and with many using an outmoded rule of thumb that each new property would contain on average two electors, it is no surprise that the equality pursued so diligently often failed to transpire.

That would not have been so important had it not been for the fact that many of the new wards created were seen to disrupt community ties. In extensive research on this subject conducted a few years ago, we noted very few spontaneous calls among reviewed authorities for equality of electorates, but recorded plenty of complaints about the destruction of boundaries with which electors identified and felt familiar.

It has seemed inappropriate that council wards should be expected to meet higher standards of equality than parliamentary constituencies. That's especially true at a time when a reduction in the tax and spending powers of local government has led it to seek an elevated role in giving expression to local needs and interests and in representing the interests of different communities.

The commission is also questioning whether each metropolitan borough ward should be obliged to elect three councillors. This requirement, together with an understandable need not to make the size of the council unwieldy, means that most wards in cities such as Birmingham and Leeds have electorates of over 16,000 (in Bordesley Green, Birmingham in May this year 19,678 electors were on the register).

Although councillors can agree to divide their workload - though probably only if they are all drawn for the same party - such electoral units are too large for voters either to identify with or to feel that they have a councillor elected by and primarily concerned about 'their' neighbourhood.

Given that evidence from Britain and elsewhere strongly suggests community identity and involvement are positively correlated with an individual's likelihood to vote, moves to stop unnecessary tinkering with ward boundaries and to cap the size of electoral units may bring small yet tangible benefits to local democracy.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives appear to go from strength to strength. The only party to make net gains in the last two months, they now have more than 8,500 councillors across the country - their highest point since 1990. However, perhaps their most disappointing result is blandly concealed as 'Lab held'. In May they won a seat from Labour in the Southway ward of Plymouth City with a narrow 29 vote majority. They needed to win again at a by-election seven weeks later in order to deprive Labour of its overall majority on the council. This time the result went the other way with Labour prevailing by 107 votes. With so much at stake it was not surprising that the parties persuaded four in 10 electors to go to the polls - exactly the same turnout as in Bromley & Chislehurst last week.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher Directors, LGC Election Centre, University

of Plymouth

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