Local elections 2024: the overlapping stories of power

“Stories are how we learn to make choices. Stories are how we learn to access the moral and emotional resources we need to face the uncertain, the unknown, and the unexpected mindfully.”

Marshall Ganz, Public Narrative Worksheet (2013) 

Human existence is woven from stories. Some stories vanish as soon as they are spoken. Other stories pass between people, or are preserved outside of ourselves, in art, books, and film. The power of stories is incalculable, and nowhere is this more evident than in how politics is constructed, practised, and analysed. 

I am reliably low-level irritated for days around local elections, as national commentators impose ready-made narratives onto the glorious diversity of places and people. To be able to reflect in any credible way on thousands of elections involving the lives and votes of millions of humans, I have asked myself three questions:

      1. What are the shared stories that people were telling us on the 2nd of May?
      2. What do the election results tell us about how those human stories shaped local campaigns?
      3. What should we do with that knowledge?

    What are the shared stories that people were telling us on the 2nd of May?

    Getting the one that is dominating the news out of the way: many of the people who voted feel let down by national government and want a different one, and that will have been factored into their vote. Labour was the greatest beneficiary of this by numbers of new councillors, councils, police and crime commissioners, and metro mayors – but both the Liberal Democrat and Green parties significantly strengthened their councillor cohorts. 

    A significant minority built independent candidacy around local priorities or areas of social injustice or discontent, several of whom were successful in being elected or changing the outcome of that election. Reform was electorally less successful than all of the above but had more impact on the strength of the Conservative losses. 

    This is not to say that these were the only stories people were telling. For example, the Green Party’s increased vote share in Bristol was not just people voting enthusiastically against the Conservatives, but – to pick one theme – with enthusiasm for the potential of democracy following the unmaking of Bristol’s mayoralty in favour of the committee system. 

    More soberly, the vast majority of people did not cast a vote – and while the nuances of what kept each of them at home are unknowable, the shared story is that they did not think it was worth it, if they thought of it at all. 

    Within that, there are themes:

    • People living in scarcity: a vote is an expression of hope for the future, even if it is just to say, “I do not want this”. People who do not have money, or safety, or time are not thinking about the future; they are thinking about now. 
    • People who did not get a choice that resonated with the stories they wanted to tell: this isn’t just about knowing which tier of government does what, it is about the rare opportunities that people have to make change.
    • People who only had one ‘choice’ and still couldn’t take it: a good example of this would be those who identify strongly with a political position – progressive or conservative – but had a dreadful candidate. 

    What do the election results tell us about how those human stories shaped local campaigns?

    One thing that characterises great campaign stories is their authenticity. People who knock on hundreds of doors a week will know very quickly if they are telling a good story – not just because of how it is received, but by how easy it is to tell, how easy it is to personalise, to bring to life. Susan Hall wanted to tell a story of London that painted it as a scary hellhole, which – for some strange reason – did not resonate with the people who quite like living there. So it didn’t work. 

    It also reminds us that some stories emerge in the hope that the right person will hear them. Nothing focuses a political party like a loss, or near miss. In his speech following Richard Parker’s narrow victory in the West Midlands, Keir Starmer’s words showed that people’s anger about Gaza had not gone unnoticed. “I have heard you. I have listened. And I am determined to meet your concerns and to gain your respect and trust again in the future.” What that looks like remains to be seen, but the act of both hearing people, respecting their stories and choices, and owning some responsibility is a good start. 

    What should we do with that knowledge?

    There are as many answers to this as there are stories but the headline is to make space for power to be wielded as close to people’s lives, communities, and assets as possible, and use that as a means to re-establish the connection between votes, stories, and outcomes. The Future Governance Forum will soon publish its foundational piece on Impactful Devolution, which will start to articulate how all tiers of government (and below) can play their part in this. 

    But here are three more:

      1. Take seriously the impact of scarcity on the health of our democracy. You’ll fix more than turnout by doing so. 
      2. You don’t have to have a solution to listen to a story, or to tell one. But pretending that a true story does not exist is a dangerous path.
      3. Authenticity takes time, so take the stories of these campaigns into governance, delivery, and the campaigns of the future.