Last Thursday (2 May) saw local elections take place across large swathes of the UK. The contests were seen as a significant test of public opinion for both the Government and the Labour Party, with Brexit (or lack thereof) likely to play a major role in the outcome. It looks like voters livid with the main parties have had their say.
Around 8,500 council seats were contested in England across 248 councils. The Conservative Party lost well over 1,000 seats and control of more than 40 councils – worse than most commentators and experts expected. This was worse than even the Party’s own expectation management spin was putting out. However, Labour failed to capitalise, putting in the worst performance by the main opposition party for decades, losing seats and councils in what will likely be marginal parts of the country at the next General Election. Instead, it was the Lib Dems, Greens and Independents who took significant ground.
Changes in Councils and Councillors in England
|Projected share of vote||28%||28%||19%||–||–||25%||–|
There were also ballots for five single authority directly-elected mayor posts, and one new combined authority ‘Metro’ mayor position. The latter post, in the new ‘North of the Tyne’ area, was won by Labour. The incumbents in Bedford (Dave Hodgson, Lib Dem), Copeland (Mike Starkie, Ind) and Leicester (Sir Peter Soulsby, Lab) all held their seats, whilst Mansfield saw an Independent lose to Labour’s Andy Abrahams. Middlesbrough saw the result go the other way, with Labour losing to Independent Andy Preston.
In Northern Ireland, 462 councillors were elected to 11 councils under a system of proportional representation. The biggest losers were the Unionist parties, collectively losing 32 seats, whilst the biggest winners were the Alliance Party, gaining 21 seats. At the end of the day, though, the DUP retained the largest number of seats across the province with 122, ahead of Sinn Fein on 105. All in all, it seems the PR system led to relatively little movement in outcomes. All eyes will now be focussed on whether – with elections out of the way – progress can be made on re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont.
A closer look
On the face of it, results are fairly obvious. The Conservatives lost big and the Lib Dems were the biggest beneficiaries. However, it is worth drilling down into the results a little more where we find results are a little more complicated.
Yes, it was an exceedingly bad night for the Tories, especially in the East, South East and South West of England – the areas they have been so strong in historically. Losing the new Unitary Authority of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to No Overall Control, for instance, was never seemingly on the cards and must count as a low water mark for many a year. Yet the Tories performed better than expected in the Midlands and especially in the Tees Valley area of the North East.
On a night where they were expecting to lose seats, they managed to win control of councils in North East Lincolnshire, Walsall and North East Derbyshire. They also clung onto the key Labour target, and political bell-weather, of Swindon, and made gains in the previous Labour heartland of Stoke. It is significant these are Leave-voting towns, in areas where Labour was their primary opposition, and that these areas are all likely to contain key ‘marginal seats’ at the next General Election. All-in-all, though, it was a terrible night for the Conservatives: losing over a thousand councillors who are also stalwart activists will clearly have a knock-on effect on future campaigning capability. Plus, there is the added loss of morale which, in turn, will build pressure on the Prime Minister. If anything, the Party got off lightly. If the Brexit Party had run candidates in this set of elections, they would almost certainly have lost hundreds more seats.
If the results were worse than expected for the Tories, they were maybe even worse for Labour. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, had been hitting the TV studios on Thursday night confidently talking about 400 gains for the Party.
Instead, they lost ground in key parts of the country to various parties. The failure to hold the Mayoralty of Middlesbrough, and control of Hartlepool and Darlington Councils, is part of a growing trend in the Tees Valley region and must alarm Labour strategists. As will be the inability to win Swindon, which has been a target for them for the past few years. But it was the loss of 20 seats and the control of Ashfield Council in Nottinghamshire to Independents that was surely the biggest shock of the night. If they are losing places like that an urgent inquest will be needed. In part, it seems like the Party were being punished for vacillating on Brexit. Feedback from local campaigners suggests that Jeremy Corbyn continues to be a drag on the Labour vote in more working-class parts of the country.
On the face of it, the Lib Dems were the biggest winners last Thursday. They will be breathing a huge sigh of relief to have won so many councillors and councils, and the extra campaigning and fundraising resources that implies. With the birth of ChangeUK, they needed to put up a good showing; having done poorly might have seen them bleed resources to that new party, which shares so many positions with them, not least on Brexit.
However, when you scratch the surface – whilst the results are good – they signal a reversion to the status quo; ie, they are finally back to where they were in 2010, before their stint in coalition with the Tories damaged their standing with so many of their base voters. They won back many of the local authorities in the South and South West they held before, matching the ‘back to the future’ gains they made in London last year.
The Party will no doubt to continue to claim they ‘won’ support in part due to their anti-Brexit position. The truth is likely to be more complicated. The Lib Dems were the only other party on the ballot paper, other than the Conservatives, in many parts of the country. They reverted to their traditional role of providing an outlet for protest voters who did not want to vote Conservative. In places where there was a broad choice of candidates, many of their gains were made because their share of the vote fell less sharply than the Tory vote. A 19% projected share of the national vote puts them back in the game and whoever takes over from Sir Vince Cable as leader later this year has a more solid base to build on. The short-term question is whether the Lib Dems can fight off the emerging ChangeUK Party at the EU elections, or even whether they should try to come to some sort of deal with them.
Independent candidates did spectacularly well in this set of elections, which is perhaps the biggest sign of voters taking a ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude to politics at the moment. And the Green Party continued its slow but steady rise in local representation across the country. It may be that the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ environmental protests in London in the run-up to the election may have helped their cause, but there is definitely a trend of them becoming more mainstream.
They will be hopeful for additional gains in the Euro elections in a few weeks’ time. Labour will be hoping that a stronger Green Party does not take votes from its left-wing when the next General Election comes.
Finally, it is worth highlighting the demise of UKIP. Even in elections where Brexit formed such a large part of the backdrop, they lost more than four-fifths of their councillor base. With the Brexit Party set to do well in the Euro elections, is there any role for UKIP in future, other than as a fringe Party of the right-wing?
Picture Credit: The Coventry Telegraph