We have usually written a feature for LGC about the May local election results during the summer, when we assess the lessons to be drawn. But this year we have been asked to write an article before they take place, and it will be published a week after this year's elections.
Writing before an event is a tricky thing. As historians, we know how difficult it is to write accurately about the past - as political scientists we know how difficult it is to discover what is happening now - and as to the future we are sceptical about the predictions of prophets. But we will draw attention to the main elements that analysts of local election campaigns and results should be looking out for.
The situation this year was complicated by holding the European elections on the same day as the local elections. That in itself is a worrying precedent that treats local elections as a moveable feast, and threatens to distract attention from the localness of local elections. We suspect the government hoped that to have the two contests on the same day would offer the prospect of the higher turnout in the local elections spilling over to raise turnout in European elections. In the past, the European elections have experienced even lower turnouts than the local elections. The government's attitude shows scant respect for local government.
The danger of regarding local elections as predictors of national elections is that local elections have not always been examined with the care they merit by those interested in local government, as participants, commentators or academics. They seldom range beyond the natural concern of national politicians as to whether they have 'got their vote out'. Yet academics have been given big opportunities for long-term study of local elections because of the magnificent work of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the LGC Election Centre, Plymouth University, in their annual handbooks, as well as in their general studies. But their work needs to be complemented by others. The media needs to devote the kind of attention to local elections results that is common in mainland Europe.
What should those interested in local government look for in the results of the 2004 local elections? First and foremost, the extent of variations between local authorities. Although national factors are always at work, all previous local elections have revealed considerable divergences from any nationally-calculated swing, which is in itself a complex figure to establish in what are often three-cornered fights. It is important, especially for those inside authorities, to identify where particular parties - especially the incumbents - have done well or badly. That would be a more reliable indicator - certainly a more local indicator - than the comprehensive performance assessment.
Within local authorities it is important to look at the variations in the results of different wards and electoral districts. Why are the governing party or parties doing better in some areas than in others? Does this variation reflect the extent to which council policies have favoured certain areas? Does it reflect differences in the popularity of the councillors? Or is it a reflection of the amount of work put in by one or more parties? There is a need to understand the variations in swings, in turnout and even more of changes in them from previous years. A sudden increase in turnout is a matter of great interest.
This year, many councils are having all-out elections with wards returning three councillors. The extent of variation in votes between candidates of the same party is an important topic for study, reflecting -
except where it corresponds to the alphabetical placing of names on the ballot paper - comparative knowledge or popularity of the candidates, or in some cases intense unpopularity.
The extent of split-voting between parties or of using only one or two votes in three-member wards would be worth studying if the counting sheets were made available. Our articles in the past have drawn attention to the impact of particular candidates in local elections.
There is much to learn from the study of local election results within councils for those ready to learn.
Two issues require study nationally. To what extent does the extension of universal postal voting make a difference to turnouts and, as some would say, results?
This issue has been examined by the Electoral Commission, which will surely do so again. It will be interesting to know, where postal votes are held for a second or third time, whether turnout remains significantly higher, as it has normally been found to do. Evidence from other countries suggests there is some falling-off from the significantly increased turnouts achieved by postal voting after the novelty effects of the new system have worn off.
Second, if comparisons were possible it would be interesting to know how far voting patterns in the elections for local government differed from those in elections for the European Parliament, for the same types of local authority. This work may not be possible because the European results are reported on a regional basis, and digging into local areas to uncover their results would be a formidable task.
There have been signs of a fourth or fifth party gaining seats. Attention will be focused on the British National Party, but there may be other more important and healthy developments. The Green Party has made a significant impact in some councils. Health Concern in Wyre Forest is a good example of local election results determining parliamentary results, rather than the usually asserted reverse. In Mansfield and Stoke, independents have made sweeping gains. Are these isolated instances or a growing trend? The UK Independence Party already has a few councillors. Will combining the local and European elections give them more?
There are also the elections for the mayor and the London Assembly members. There is so much to study and learn. One wonders how many will do so. Will they be treated as local elections about local issues, local candidates and local parties. Or will these local elections be considered a public-opinion survey of the standing of the prime minister and his government?
George Jones, emeritus professor of government, London School of Economics, and John Stewart, emeritus professor, Birmingham University