This Metrolink map shows just how much local election turnout varies across Greater Manchester

A tram in central Manchester. Image: Getty.

Kingsley Purdam and Rob Ford from the University of Manchester use the Manchester Metrolink map to show levels of voter turnout – and ask if there will be more or less local democracy in 2018.

The 2018 local elections across England will be held in May, but despite their importance for policy they are likely to pass most people by. Turnout in local elections averages around 30 per cent, meaning over two thirds of people don’t take part.

In some cases, the numbers are far lower still. In the 2012 local elections one ward had a turnout of 13 per cent. Some polling districts within wards can record turnouts in single digits.

This compares to the 2017 General Election, where the lowest turnout in a constituency was 54 per cent, and the highest was 79 per cent.  In the 2016 local elections, the average turnout across wards in England was 34 per cent; the lowest level of turnout in a ward was 16 per cent and the highest level was 53 per cent.

Actually, it’s even worse than this sounds some local elections literally go uncontested as only one candidate is standing.

Official turnout statistics are based on the percentage of the people registered to vote who actually vote. But many people are not on the registers. The registers are around 90 per cent accurate and it is estimated that around 7.5m people are not correctly registered at their current address in Great Britain. People move home, and electoral registers lag behind.

Why people do and don’t vote

Many things affect whether people decide to vote. Their level of interest in politics, views of politicians, party identification, sense of civic duty, the type of area where they live, their age, gender, ethnicity, martial status, social class, level of qualifications – all these can play a role, and this is not an exhaustive list. In general, those people who have higher incomes and those with higher levels of qualifications are more likely to turnout and vote.

Turnout is also likely to vary according to the nature of the contest. Elections seen by voters as more important, like general elections or referendums, generally attract more people to the polls. So do close contests, and elections with intense local and national campaigning. The personal touch also counts – people are more likely to vote when they have been contacted by parties, but particularly when they are canvassed in person by local party representatives.

But many people are not that interested, and it doesn’t take much to turn some of them off the idea of voting – bad weather or even a longer walk to the polling station can reduce turnout.

The low levels of turnout at local elections reflect the lower profile of local elections, which attract less media coverage and are seen by many voters as less important. However some people have a specific attachment to a local issue or politician and a stronger sense that they can make a difference in local affairs, which can drive turnout. Many people vote for a different party at a local election compared a general election, even if both elections are held on the same day – something which boosts local turnout a lot.

Democracy in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester is home to 2.7m people living in ten local authorities. It includes some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK. In the context of the on-going debates about the nature of Brexit and devolved government in the Northwest, we have mapped the turnout levels from the 2016 local elections to each tram stop on the Manchester Metrolink, to illustrate the stark differences in political engagement which occur even in small areas.

The turnout rates shown here are based on the percentage of people on the electoral register who voted. They include postal votes and invalid votes, such as spoiled ballots. We also include information on the level of socio-economic deprivation in the areas where the tram stops are located using the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). The IMD is an official measure, which ranks local areas across England in terms of the levels of employment, education and health. Here we show the decile of the area ranking in relation to England as a whole.

Democracy on the Line. Click to expand. Image: author provided.

Mind the Representation Gap

As the map highlights, electoral turnout varies considerably across Greater Manchester, even between local areas. Moreover these rates don’t take account of the many people who are not registered to vote.

Of the tram stops highlighted 15 are in areas where turnout was less than 30 per cent. Most of these stops are in areas ranked as amongst the most economically deprived in Greater Manchester, and all are represented by Labour Party councillors.

Only 3 tram stops are in areas which had turnout rates of 50 per cent or higher (Freehold, Timperley and Oldham Mumps). Many closely connected tram stops are in areas which can have very different levels of electoral turnout. For example, Chorlton and Withington are just a few minutes apart, but there is a 15 per cent difference in electoral turnout.

The journey from Timperley (one of the most economically prosperous areas in Greater Manchester) to central Manchester (one of the most economically deprived areas) takes around 25 minutes, and involves a drop in voter turnout of 28 percentage points The average journey time between Wythenshawe Town Centre and Chorlton is 24 minutes, with turnout rising 25 percentage points on this short journey. In both these examples, the highly economically deprived area has very low political engagement, while the more economically prosperous stop has much higher turnout.

However deprivation is not the only factor influencing turnout. For example, the tram stops of Oldham Mumps and Freehold are in some of the most economically deprived areas of Greater Manchester (and England for that matter) – but the levels of turnout in these areas are amongst the highest.

More or less local democracy in 2018?

The differences in electoral turnout across local areas are striking. In many areas, very few people vote, despite the fact that politics dominates much of the news and that political decisions are directly linked to the laws we live by, the public services we pay for and access and the regulation of the markets.

Whilst a range of factors are linked with electoral turnout, overall turnout is lower in areas of economic deprivation. Yet it is just these areas that are most in need of more democratic accountability and policy maker engagement in order to hear the views of the residents and for economic and social problems to be addressed.

Often the areas in the UK which have the highest levels of economic deprivation are the most in need of political policy interventions and accountability have the biggest democratic deficits. This is likely to be linked to people’s sense of engagement and belief that the electoral system and politicians can represent their views and deliver change. This can produce a vicious circle, with low engagement levels reducing the incentive for politicians to listen and respond to communities, who then become even more disheartened and disengaged.

Despite a range on initiatives aimed at increasing the levels of political engagement, there is still a disconnect between the policy makers and the people. Perhaps the next local elections will start to change this – but given the magnitude of the challenge, there will still be much work left to do after the votes are counted and the newly elected councillors take their seats.

Kingsley Purdam is a senior lecturer in social research, and Rob Ford a professor of political science, at the University of Manchester.

This research is part of on going work at the University of Manchester. For more information please contact us.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.