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May 4, 2022 | by Nancy Hey

Life satisfaction impacts voter turnout and behaviour – so how are UK local authorities doing?

As UK voters head to the polls for local elections this week, our executive director Nancy Hey looks at how life satisfaction can impact voter turnout and behaviour, and shares the findings from a new exploratory analysis of how wellbeing has changed in UK local authorities over the last 10 years.

There is clear evidence that economic performance has an impact on election results, and governments are more likely to be re-elected when the economy is doing well. Until recently a lot less has been known about the impact of people’s wellbeing on voter turnout and behaviour. 

In 2019, Dr George Ward, part of the Centre’s initial cross cutting programme with LSE, looked into this connection. He studied wellbeing and election data from a number of countries and sources, including four decades of election and life satisfaction data in Europe, to try and understand the link between happiness and voting.

His research found that wellbeing is a strong predictor of election results. There was a significant positive relationship between national life satisfaction in the run-up to general elections and the subsequent electoral success of governing parties. A one standard deviation increase in national life satisfaction is associated with nearly an 8 percentage-point increase in cabinet vote share.

He also found that the incumbent is an 8 percentage-point-increase more likely to lose if life satisfaction has dropped. 

How has wellbeing changed across UK authorities over the past decade?

Since 2011/12, the UK has been one of a small but growing number of countries to systematically measure the subjective wellbeing, or ‘happiness’, of its citizens, along with GDP. This data offers insight into the health of society, and can be used to help evaluate the impact of policy and practice on people’s lives. 

Using this publicly available subjective wellbeing data, a new paper by Dr Michael Sanders looks at how wellbeing has changed at local authority level in the UK over the last decade, and how this has been impacted by the pandemic. 

Which local authorities have improved the most during the last ten years?

For each local authority, Sanders estimated mean wellbeing for each year, broken down by the four ONS Wellbeing Questions:

  1. Life Satisfaction: Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  2. Worthwhile: Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  3. Happiness: Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  4. Anxiety: On a scale where 0 is ‘not at all anxious’ and 10 is ‘completely anxious’, overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

You can read more about the methodology in the full paper.

The average data across the country shows a marked increase in the proportion of people with poor wellbeing in 2020. However, when we break this down to local authority level, there were notable differences in wellbeing levels up until the pandemic.

The table below shows the ten local authorities that saw the biggest positive growth in each of the four wellbeing questions from 2011-2020:

Table 4: Top ten local authorities by growth in wellbeing 2011-2020
Position Anxiety Happiness Life Satisfaction Worthwhile
1 Melton Blackburn Pendle Epsom and Ewell
2 Burnley Watford Wolverhampton Brent
3 Brentwood Brent Blackburn with Darwen North Warwickshire
4 Boston Horsham Melton Great Yarmouth
5 Horsham Melton Stratford-on-Avon Rugby
6 Runnymede Crawley North Warwickshire Mansfield
7 Croydon North Warwickshire Richmondshire Melton
8 Three Rivers Spelthorne Epsom and Ewell Stratford-on-Avon
9 Newham Fylde Mansfield Fylde
10 Hackney Richmondshire Great Yarmouth Fenland

Source: Local Authority Wellbeing Over Time by Dr Michael Sanders

Which authorities suffered the most in terms of wellbeing during the pandemic?

Finally, the research highlighted the local authorities that have seen the largest drop in wellbeing between their 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 data. These are: 

Table 5: Local authorities experiencing worst drops in wellbeing during the pandemic
Position Anxiety Happiness Life Satisfaction Worthwhile
1 Burnley Gedling North East Derbyshire Redditch
2 Warwick Havant Redditch Vale of White Horse
3 East Staffordshire East Staffordshire Gedling Chichester
4 Horsham Watford Pendle Melton
5 Ashfield Fylde Gravesham Fenland
6 Rother Maldon Richmondshire Spelthorne
7 South Holland Pendle Lichfield Exeter
8 Spelthorne Cannock Chase Cannock Chase Fylde
9 Fylde Richmondshire Chichester Lichfield
10 Pendle Stevenage Craven Cannock Chase

Source: Local Authority Wellbeing Over Time by Dr Michael Sanders

However, the paper also highlights that the pandemic’s impact on wellbeing was not the same across all areas in the UK, and certain authorities have fared better. In fact, 11 local authorities experienced positive changes in all four wellbeing questions moving from 2019-2020 into 2020-2021. These are:

  • Breckland 
  • Broadland
  • Chorley
  • Derbyshire Dales
  • Lewes
  • Lincoln
  • Preston
  • South Ribble
  • Torridge
  • Uttlesford
  • Wyre.


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