Normally I’d write about the Cambridge City Council elections a couple of weeks before they took place. However, there was much talk about this year’s elections at the community meeting held earlier this week, and I promised a few people I’d write an explanatory article now.
That’s because this May’s elections are a bit different.
Each ward in Cambridge gets three city councillors, and usually we elect one each year. We get every fourth year off from voting, so each councillor gets a four-year term of office, on an overlapping, rolling basis.
However, this year, thanks to some boundary changes (which are pretty minor around Queen Edith’s), instead of electing a third of our councillors, they’re drawing a line and we’re going to be electing the whole council. That means even those councillors who have served less than the usual four years have to stand again for election. Last time an ‘all up’ election like this happened was back in 2004, so it’s a rare event.
Usually at each election, we all get just one vote, so the various parties put up just one candidate and that’s our choice, alongside – if we’re lucky – the occasional independent.
This year, as we’re electing three city councillors, we’ll get three votes each. Parties who think they stand a good chance will put up three candidates. Those that can’t find three candidates can still stand one or two. In the last ‘all up’ election, Queen Edith’s had 11 candidates on the ballot paper. Here’s how the results panned out (source):
Queen Edith’s City Council Election Results 2004
You’ll notice that within parties, candidates did not get the same number of votes, so it’s not the case that (say) every would-be Conservative voter in the ward went out and put three crosses on the ballot paper next to the three Conservative candidates. The differences will probably have been caused by some voters choosing candidates from a mixture of parties, but more likely it was down to what looks like 10–20% of voters not choosing to use all three votes. That may have been because they were unaware that they could do this, but I think it’s more likely that they just wanted to vote for one or two candidates. If your main motivation in voting was to vote for a UKIP candidate, for example, there was only one on the ballot paper so you may well have decided to leave it at just that one vote.
Research by election analysts suggests that the number of such unused votes in Queen Edith’s last time is typical. However, research also backs up the supposition that being higher up the ballot paper is an advantage within parties, and that doesn’t seem to be the case in the results above.
What does all this mean for Queen Edith’s in 2020?
Last year Queen Edith’s was won comfortably by the Liberal Democrats, with the big change being that we had an independent candidate, who did surprisingly well:
Queen Edith’s City Council Election Results 2019
Is this likely to change much with having multiple votes for multiple candidates?
Instinctively, you might think that an independent candidate might benefit from voters having three choices. Apart from the voters who have the independent candidate as their first choice, there will be those voters supporting parties with fewer than three candidates who have ‘spare’ votes that they might be inclined to give to an independent candidate.
However, this could be cancelled out by voters who have an independent candidate as their first choice going on to give their ‘spare’ votes to the strongest party candidates, inadvertently cancelling out their intended support for the independent candidate. This is not a ranking, or transferrable vote, system: our three votes all count equally.
So a different type of election may not have a significant impact.
Who is likely to be on the ballot paper?
I’m fairly confident in predicting that there won’t be as broad a choice – either in Queen Edith’s or across the city – as there was in 2004. In wards that tend to elect candidates from the same party every year, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the parties to find even one candidate. That’s certainly been the case for Labour and the Green Party here in Queen Edith’s in many recent elections. How they’re going to find three candidates, I really don’t know. The Conservatives have had an enthusiastic candidate here in recent years, but again – where will they find three candidates?
As for the Liberal Democrats, they’ll start as favourites in this ward, especially if their three current councillors stand again. Otherwise, there’ll be competition to fill any vacant spots; whether they’d be able to find anyone local, I don’t know. There’ll be places to be filled on ballot papers all over the city.
As ever, with my Queen Edith’s magazine editor’s hat on, I can confirm that we’ll be running a full preview of the election in our early summer issue, so all local voters will get a full rundown of who’s standing. And despite the potentially large field of candidates, the Queen Edith’s Community Forum still intends to run a hustings event where we can hear from them all. Watch this space.
What are the prospects across the city as a whole?
The party political makeup, as ever, defines everything, as councillors nearly always just vote in party blocs, whatever the issue. The City Council currently stands at 26 Labour councillors, 15 Liberal Democrat councillors and 1 independent councillor, as shown:
Of course, with the entire council up for election, this is a rare opportunity for a party to take a much more significant position in one move. However, conversations I’ve had with people who know much more than me about what’s going on outside Queen Edith’s suggest there’s unlikely to be much change.
It’s a long shot that the Green Party or the Conservatives, who have had very infrequent council representation in recent years, can repeat any of those rare wins; and the astonishingly ‘as you were’ recent general election result in Cambridge doesn’t suggest much of a systemic swing between Labour and the Lib Dems.
There’ll be a lot of effort in the Trumpington and West Chesterton wards, where there are currently councillors from different parties; and a few wards on the battle lines have more significant boundary changes than we see elsewhere, so they could be more competitive. But unless their parties do anything daft nationally (such as choosing unelectable leaders), I’d expect to see a continued Labour majority with the Lib Dems forming the bulk of the opposition along with the occasional independent.