The danger in celebrating parish and town council wins for your own party

There are no principal authority council by-elections this week, so here instead is a reminder of why I stick to those principal authorities only in coverage.

There are two sorts of councils and hence council elections in the UK. Those called “principal authorities”, which cover bodies such as* county councils, district councils, unitary councils and London Boroughs. Then there is a lower tier made up of parish, community and town councils.

Politically, there is a key difference between the two which explains why systematic analysis of council by-elections, vote share changes in them and collections of local by-election results all cover (only) principal authorities. That’s true for academics, the better sort of political pundits, reference works and the like.

Parish, community and town council elections are frequently uncontested, which immediately raises an issue about calculating vote shares and swings. Moreover, it’s usual for a candidate who is a member of a political party to stand as an ‘independent’, with the voters quite possibly never knowing which party they belong to. This is exacerbated by the different legal framework for these elections, but even when candidates put out leaflets, party names feature very rarely compared with principal authority contests. This means that even if there was, say, a Labour candidate last time and one again this time, looking at the change in their vote often doesn’t really reveal anything about Labour. Finally, there is a pragmatic reason for excluding the parish, town and community elections – their results are very, very hard to track down and there is no comprehensive dataset of all such results.

Hence, my own posts almost exclusively concentrate on principal authorities with only rare exceptions such as when there’s the pleasure to share of someone I know being elected (congratulations Antony).

I try to stick to this quite rigorously because there’s a danger of self-deception in slipping into commenting on, publishing about or even just simply reacting to other parish, town or community council results that come your way via a social media feed or timeline. It’s that you end up with a very distorted view of what’s going on – your friends share with you the exciting outliers (‘hooray! we won the first seat for 163 years in this village!’) and you don’t hear about the mundane reality that makes up the bulk of results (‘two independents were elected unopposed, yet again, and three people had to be co-opted to fill up the other vacancies’).

It isn’t a random representative selection of such results you end up ingesting. It’s a biased selection. Looking at only a biased selection of facts is never a good move, however well-meaning the intent and however copper-bottomed the individual facts. It’s still a biased selection, just as only reporting opinion polls which show your own party going up would be.

Which is why whenever you cheer you own side winning a town, parish or community council seat you shouldn’t follow it up with any view on how your own side’s fortunes are going unless there is some special extenuating circumstance.


* I write “such as” because there is also the City of London, the Isles of Scilly and the Greater London Authority.

5 responses to “The danger in celebrating parish and town council wins for your own party”

  1. In general Mark I agree with you. But here in Lewes, Town Council elections are always contested and political parties are to the fore. The town is unusual in that it is home to a Town Council, District Council and County Council, which may go some way to explain why Town Council elections are so keenly fought. They are a way of testing support and bringing on councillors. In a current Town Council by-election Lib Dems are represented by an approved parliamentary candidate who is up against the daughter of a former Tory minister.

  2. That is all perfectly true, Mark, but you miss one important point. Except where the town is a larger one(such as Lewes), for most Parish councils party politics are quite irrelevant. My experience, when a councillor at District level, was that party politics, and the resultant tribalism, often got in the way – to achieve things we had to work together across party.
    At Parish level(I am Vice Chair), my Party membership or that of the Chair(she is Tory) is never mentioned and neither is the membership, or none, of the other councillors. We do usually have an election, because in the run-up we contact all those who have attended meetings, shown concern about parish matters or those who write on Fb that ‘something should be done’ and encourage them to stand.
    Where nominees are elected unopposed, and spaces have to be filled by co-option, it is surely a reflection on the outgoing council not connecting with their community – or national political shenanigans putting people off.

  3. I agree with John. Teignmouth Town Council wards are co-terminus with district wards (but with four town councillors) elections are always contested by political parties. The neighbouring Shaldon Parish Council has the same powers as the town council, but has not an election for two decades and normally has to co-opt, as there are insufficient candidates. We had a by-election in February which we fought as hard as we would a district by-election.

  4. Whilst I agree that for Parishes where it is more like a selection rather than election, I disagree with the generalisation that all Town councils are not an indicator for the higher levels of council. Within my town all of the wards are contested and all are battled between the three major English parties, independents, and a resident association. The town council is a key player within the political picture within the town and takes on an increasing amount of services that the District and County councils fail to run in a cost effective way. The role of the town councillor is an important cog in the roles of the Lib Dem County and District councillors as part of a wider team and it is the work of the Town councillors that drive the election of the other two. In many cases town councillors will hold positions on two or three of the council’s.

    I am a councillor in a Town seat who works closely with the district councillor on all matters affecting the residents in the ward, and with the county councillor.

    Yes I am biased towards recording at least some of the Town’s that have councils that are political, not only for self interest but also to highlight trends within the district and the county especially at by-elections.

  5. I echo John Lamb’s comments. Whereas a lot of small parishes are comprised of only (or mainly) independents, there are town councils which have political contests. A win in one of these contests has lead to wins at district and county level. It also can lead to people who lack confidence to acquire some political nous, in order to feel able to contest principal council elections.
    I really feel that we should celebrate wins of Liberal Democrat councillors at all levels of local government.

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