The fragmentation of the opposition is leading to unrepresentative councils
One of the odder aspects of local elections in recent years has been the renewed dominance of the Labour and Conservative parties. Despite receiving only about 60% of the national equivalent vote in last Thursday’s polls, the major parties now hold 75.5% of all seats in Britain. In London, the figure is over 90%.
In the second half of the last decade, the Con+Lab tally of seats was typically 67-68% of the total. The proportion is now rising as the Liberal Democrats decline and other parties win only small chunks of the vote. In the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system the Conservatives and Labour can prosper mightily if the 40% of the vote they don’t win is fragmented.
So, despite Ukip’s advance, it is the old parties which have benefited most from its rise. In the past, the Tory councillor tally would have plunged far faster than it has because of the slow death of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Since 2010, the number of Conservative councillors has dropped by just over 1,000. In the first four years after Tony Blair’s election in 1997, Labour shed 2,000 councillors.
This trend hints at an unexpected possible future for local government. If the ‘not Con-Lab’ vote continues to fragment, it will become easier for the traditional parties to win power, even if their vote share drops. The number of urban councils where Labour holds all (or nearly all) the seats is evidence of this phenomenon.
Labour and the Conservatives can win an unassailable total of councillors with under 50% of the vote. Indeed, the more fragmented the smaller party vote becomes, it is possible for the dominant parties to stay in power with even 40 or 35% of the vote.
Looking forward to the 2015 general election, it is evident that the Conservatives and Labour hope to be able to win an outright majority with only 35 to 38% of the popular vote. In a number of councils, such a total may in the future win virtually 100% of the seats. It is hard to see such an outcome encouraging decent turnouts.
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics