False Signal

21 April 2017

Cogito Ergo Non Serviam

Britain's Local Elections in May Won't Forecast General Election Result

The June 8 general election in the UK will follow by five weeks elections to some of the country's local councils on May 4. The temptation among pundits, pollsters and politicians will be to try predicting the June outcome based on the May results. The data will be fresh, the interval between the two elections is close, the parties involved will all be the same (save of course for the candidates themselves). Analysts will demand to know how the local elections could not possibly be an indicator of the general election outcome. The answer is simply that the similarities are deceiving, and the differences are too great for the events to be linked.

First and foremost, the turnout is going to be very different. All of the Welsh and Scottish councils are being contested, but only 35 of England's. In addition, there are 11 local council by-elections, and six regional mayors and two district mayors will be on the ballot. In other words, most of England will be staying home on May 4. Get out the vote efforts in Scotland and Wales may be a dry run for the GOTV in June, but in England, where most of the votes are, the fragmented nature of the electoral calendar means the national parties may not go all out or may bring in outside resources that won't be available in June, skewing the number. Moreover, general elections have better turn out than local balloting. In 2015, 66.4% of voters cast a ballot in the general election. The 2016 referendum turnout was 72.2%. Compare those to the relatively high profile local election for Mayor of London in 2016, which had a turnout of 45.3%.

Second, unlike most British elections, some of the May elections will be decided by single member first-past-the-post voting as well as a system of multiple member districts and wards. That changes how people vote. For most members of the electorate, the way officials count votes is not important. They simply vote for their guy and have done with it. However, when preferential voting, multiple member jurisdictions or other factors come into play, one gets a different outcome because the parties try to educate the voters on how to vote more effectively. Furthermore, when turnout is low, the voters tend to be the activists and partisans who understand the finer points of the system. A tactical vote in a local election in a multi-member ward is a poor indicator of how the same person's general election vote in will go in a first-past-the-post contest.

Third, the issues are different. In June, the electorate will be deciding things like Brexit, the future of the NHS, and defense policy. None of those are the concern of the local councillors (with the possible exception of some minor parts of healthcare). Control of Worcestershire County Council will not affect Britain's relationship with the EU in the least. Local taxation (the rates), however, is a big issue, and it will not be affected greatly if one party or another wins the Westminster seat.

Fourth, five weeks can be an eternity in politics. The idea of taking May's results and running them through a mathematical model to project likely June outcomes is valid only to the extent that nothing really changes in the interval. When a journalist asked Prime Minister Harold MacMillan what might blow governments off course, he answered, "events, my boy, events." There is a great deal that can go wrong in the modern world, and it can go wrong quickly. Unforeseen events could render May 2017 as different from June 2017 as it is from May 1917.

Here is what one can expect from May's elections. The parties that do well will claim that it is an indication that they will do well in June. The parties that don't do well will claim that it has nothing to do with June's elections. The pollsters, who have not tested their new models forced on them by the surprise Tory victory in 2015 and the Brexit vote last year, may well try to forecast June results using May data. They may also change some of their questions and methodologies after the May count is over. However, they will be waiting for the June results to confirm or undermine their approach. The fact is, they don't have a model that has been borne out by actual voting yet.

In short, much will be made of May's local elections because a lot of people have a vested interest in doing so. For that reason alone, one should be cautious in handling the data.

© Copyright 2017 by The Kensington Review, Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.

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