The relationship between performance in local and national elections has not received the attention it deserves.
Pundits will endlessly speculate on what a hammering at midterm means for a sitting government’s prospects. Polls are compared, models compiled, but big questions are left unanswered.
It is chicken and egg territory. Are councillors on the ground a prerequisite for that planned Westminster breakthrough, or simply a reflection of a party on the up?
That synergy is what our latest report sets out to explore. Outcomes in national elections hinge on a local base, local knowledge and crucially, local data. And the arrival of the ‘Big Data’ approach to political campaigning, working in tandem with established ‘pavement politics’, will make that local base more – not less – important in the battles to come.
The Obama campaign pioneered data on age, sex, ethnicity, neighbourhood, voting record and even consumer data to target supporters for possible donations. This same data was then used to turn out voters in key demographics. Data on voter’s TV habits was used to target ads, airing them in then unconventional programming such as the Walking Dead. As the American news site Politico put it “They know what you read and where you shop, what kind of work you do and who you count as friends. They also know who your mother voted for in the last election.
But back to Britain. A quick glance at any political map – be it Westminster MPs or local government control – shows that Britain is a divided nation. But it is a country less divided than political geographers make it appear.
Both the major parties have supporters outside their traditional heartlands. But that is not translating into elected local officials, or the party machinery capable of taking that support to the next level.
Both One Nation Conservatism and One Nation Labour remain dim prospects while the parties are unable to build a real base outside their heartlands. A ‘One Nation’ platform has clear emotional resonance. However, the political impact of our local election system means that it will remain unfulfilled.
Britain is currently lacking what can accurately be described as a ‘national’ party, and the policy implications of this should be obvious to anyone.
From the bottom up, large parts of the country are essentially off-limits to the main parties. The First Past the Post system we use for electing councillors in England and Wales predicates against the development of the grassroots that can turn local gains into Members of Parliament.
This is both a principled and a partisan appeal. It is in the interest of voters, parties and politics itself to change the way local elections work in this country.
For more information see From Councillors to MPs: Looking beyond the 2013 Local Elections, by Chris Terry