Local elections 2021: what you need to know

By Cameron Spencer |

The government’s announcement of lessening lockdown restrictions officially confirmed that local elections will go ahead on May 6th. Only 37 elections took place in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and as yet, 2021 has seen very few contests in anticipation of May. It is a set to be one of the most consequential local election days in UK history with more seats up for grabs than ever before. The unprecedented events of the last year has unleashed many new elements into our political system, this will be the first time we see the results of this at the ballot box.

What will be voted on?

Thousands of seats will be contested across the UK, ranging from parish, city and county councils, local and regional mayorships, Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Senedd seats, and Police Commissioners. Last May, 118 councils were scheduled to hold elections for numerous seats, the terms for these councillors for a year and they will now face the electorate later this year.

For voters in Cornwall, this will include Cornwall Councillors, parish councillors, Truro City councillors, Falmouth Town councillors and the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Cornwall is one of 56 unitary authorities across the UK. Since 2009, it has had increased powers to control education, social services, planning, transportation and a number of other key services.

Since 2013, Cornwall Council has been controlled by a coalition of Independents and Liberal Democrats. In 2017, the Conservatives made gains and currently control a plurality of seats. Labour and Cornish nationalist party Mebyon Kernow each hold four seats. Redistricting has lowered the number of seats on offer to 87 Councillors. This is a major reduction from the current 123.

Will it be safe?

The government are giving councils an extra £31m for plastic screens in polling stations and other appropriate PPE measures to keep voters safe. Voters will be urged to bring their own pen or pencil and masks will be mandatory inside polling places, unless exempt.

The 2020 US Election proved the efficacy of postal voting as a safer method of voting during Covid times. It is likely the government and Electoral Commission will encourage this method more widely than ever before to limit face-to-face contact. However, some councils have proposed to make these elections solely postal ballot, although this idea has been rejected. Emergency ballots for those shielding on election day will be available.  

Canvassing and in-person campaigning will be allowed from the second week of March, alleviating fears from local democracy advocacy groups that this would be prohibited. Activists will be restricted to the rule-of-6, use hand sanitiser when moving from house-to-house and are required to remain two meters from others outside of the campaigning bubble. Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith, urged ‘political campaigners to continue to show social responsibility, and for parties, agents and candidates to ensure that their campaigners understand the clear rules’.

What might election results show us?

With general elections happening only once every five years, local elections can be a good indicator of the national political mood. In 2019, during the peak of Brexit turmoil, Theresa May’s Conservatives lost 1,330 councillors, most seats going to Remain supporting Liberal Democrat and Green candidates. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour saw a loss of 7% of votes, many coming from Leave voting areas of the North, an early sign of results that were to come later that year.

This May’s elections will undoubtedly be dominated by public judgement of the government’s response to Covid. Boris Johnson will hope to ride a wave of positive public sentiment as restrictions are lifted and vaccines administered, but after a year of world leading Covid rates, he will face scrutiny from the electorate for the first time for his overall response.

Sir Keir Starmer will lead the Labour Party into his first election as leader. He will hope to gain support from Labour voters and the wider electorate for his post-Corbyn project, slowly rebuilding the party from a historically unsuccessful 2019 General Election campaign. Similarly, Sir Ed Davey will lead the Liberal Democrats election campaign for the first time after an equally poor showing in 2019. He will hope local government successes in the past will continue to allow his party to outperform Westminster results. Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry’s Green Party will hope to build on the last local elections where they over tripled their seats nationwide.

‘What the Council does effects many, many aspects of your life, so please use your vote | Pexels

Why is voting in local elections important?

Persistent low turnout in local elections is a common, but undesirable pattern. In 2017, 39.9% of people cast a vote in Cornwall’s elections, slightly above the national rate of 35.3%. This rate is consistently lower among younger voters. While the stakes of general elections and referendums are commonly perceived as higher, often local results have a greater direct impact on communities through the services they provide. While MPs can appear distant and focused on national issues, councillors represent fewer people and have a direct stake in the areas they stand in. Numerous examples exist of elections decided by only a few votes; your vote can make a difference.

Encouraging student participation, Cornwall Council Deputy Leader Adam Paynter told the Anchor, “These are unprecedented times during a pandemic and having all elections in England postponed from last March. It would be great if students get involved with firstly voting but also considering putting yourself forward to stand for election.”

Also speaking to the Anchor, Cornwall Council Leader Julian German reminded voters of the wide range of important decisions local representatives make. “Cornwall Council plays an important role in your life, sometimes unseen, such as ensuring alcohol is sold in the correct measures to regulating landlords, to the more overt collection of recycling and waste to delivering quality roads and public transport. What the Council does effects many, many aspects of your life, so please use your vote.”