UK Local Politics and the Low Hanging Fruit

What if I told you that there is one tier of UK government that is so poorly supported that most (sometimes all) “elected” representatives are not elected at all.

To hold an election you obviously need at least two candidates. If you only have one candidate then holding an election is just a waste of time and money. The single candidate gets the job by default. No election is held.

That may sound bad. But, in fact the situation with the bottom tier of local government is far, far worse.

Many (not a few, or even some) of these Parish/Town councils have empty seats where nobody has put themselves forward as a candidate.

Going to the extreme, there are a significant number of these councils that are completely devoid of candidates. They literally have no-one who wants to do the job.

Here is a BBC report on this from April 2019

So why is this?

The UK is (mostly) controlled by three tiers of elected representatives.
  • Member of Parliament. The top level. All seats are always contested in general elections and by-elections.
  • County or District Councillor. Almost always  (with rare exceptions) all seats are contested. I have not come across any seats that are left vacant due to a lack of candidates. Though I have come across the occasional uncontested seat ( candidate)
  • Parish (and Town) Councillors  This is where the problem lies. A large majority of Councillors do not have to face an election simply because nobody else wants to do the job. Even worse there are literally thousands of  Parish Council seats across the country where nobody wants to do the job at all.

Along with the BBC piece above I have done a little data scraping (currently incomplete - more to come) regarding the May 2019 local elections for my own county (Dorset - more counties to follow) I found the following:

In May 2019 the local elections in Dorset revealed the following:

Parishes with contested seats: 53
Parishes with no contests:166
Parish Councils with no candidates at all: 24

By the way, there is nothing unusual about Dorset.

I've yet to process one of the documents before I can work out how many of the councils with contested and uncontested seats actually also have vacancies but the BBC piece above indicates it is over 80% of the councils. I know my local Parish council has four vacancies. I do not suppose it is at-all unusual.

Surprised? Shocked even?

But (I hear you say) Parish councils have no power. 

Maybe you think Parish councils are just golf club cliques who argue about the hanging baskets down the shopping arcade. Or act like commissars when deciding who gets an allotment.

Well, first off, Parish/Town Councils do have power - and responsibility. 

While the powers of a Parish council are limited, they are important. Most do not exercise anywhere near their full capability, and that is because they collectively do not have the drive, the manpower or the expertise to do so. 

Most Councillors (despite the caricatures) are earnest community orientated individuals who do the job for nothing  and receive little or no praise for doing it. They do the job quietly and anonymously without seeking praise or reward.

The majority of Parish Councillors are independents. While a party aligned Councillor would gain the support and publicity from his/her party, independents have no such support. 

So they simply do a lonely job and do not brag about it. 

Even though they are a fabulous asset to the community, nobody knows they are there.

So, how could a small party (say - the SDP) make a big inroad into this dying layer of our democracy? How could they use Parish/Town Councils as a lever to improve peoples lives and so gain popularity and support?

The first (but most certainly NOT the last) requirement is to gain seats on Parish Councils. 

This is easy! It can be done almost immediately.


Remember all those empty seats from the May 2019 local elections? Most of them are still empty. In fact (although this is a bit anecdotal) I expect there are even more empty seats now than in May as some people will have pulled out and resigned. 

I’d bet there are well over 1500 easy-to-fill empty seats across the country today. Anyone living within 3 miles of one can apply to be a Parish Councillor and fill the seat.

(In fact this is almost certainly a massive underestimate. There are 9000 parish/town councils in England alone. If 80% have vacancies then that is a minimum (one seat per parish) of 7200 vacancies. Bearing in mind many have multiple vacancies and some no Councillors at all I would suggest my 1500 easy-to-fill seat is probably an order of magnitude too small)

How do you get elected to one of those seats? 

You don’t. You submit your CV, get nominated and co-opted. 

Unless someone else actually applies at the same time no election is held. 

Parish councils are desperate to fill vacant seats. If you have enough enthusiasm to have a go then you are in.

So that is why in my last post I said that the SDP (or any other party with enough committed members) could gain a significant number of seats and local power within 2 months. 

Even with its hugely increased membership I would fully expect that there will be far more vacant seats than there would be SDP members willing to stand as Councillors.

And not a vote has to be cast.

But that is most definitely NOT it. 

Unless those new Councillors get support (and lots of it) nothing would improve. 

Any party that tried this without ensuring there was a strong support infrastructure for these new Councillors would end up with a lot of lonely, isolated and disillusioned people ruing the day the signed up for local government.

So how a political party avoid such a calamity and revive this failing tier of local government?

That's the next post.

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