Balance of power
Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher are Associate Members of Nuffield College, Oxford
Last month’s local elections did little either to shift the terms of the national political debate or to alter the balance of power in local government.
In most cases where there has been a shift to or from ‘no overall control’, for example, it will likely be the same party and people who continue to have the whip hand.
But electors in those five councils that did witness a decisive change will now have a whole new team – and probably new policy promises as well – to hold accountable. In Plymouth, Labour claims it will fulfil 100 pledges, although not all are solely within its gift; in Redditch, the victorious Conservatives have targeted town centre regeneration.
The Liberal Democrats forced turnovers from the Conservatives in Kingston upon Thames, Richmond upon Thames, and South Cambridgeshire. In the latter they promise a return to ‘liberal politics’ and it is notable that the Remain side was well ahead in each of those three local authorities at the 2016 EU referendum.
In general, however, and despite the undoubted impact of local issues and personalities on individual results, analysis of the elections can conveniently be divided between London and elsewhere.
Labour did do well in London. Although falling 100 seats short of their record total of 1,221 in 1971, they matched their highest ever number of councils controlled (21). In Redbridge, they made 15 gains and now have at least 80 per cent of all seats in no fewer than 14 of the 32 London boroughs. On the other hand, the party comprehensively lost the battle to manage expectations to the Conservatives.
The Conservatives registered their lowest ever number of seats in the capital (511) and lost control in both Kingston and Richmond. But they had so successfully played up the likelihood of their losing councils such as Barnet and Westminster, which had been in their hands ever since their creation in 1964, that Theresa May was able to claim holding on to them as some kind of victory. Labour, by contrast, was perceived to have fallen short of its ambitions.
There could be no disguising the Conservatives’ failure in south west London, though. Although they made in-roads into the Liberal Democrat majority in Sutton, they suffered landslide defeats to Vince Cable’s party in his own backyard. Indeed, more than half the Tory net losses in London were to the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour.
If that has been put down in some quarters to the revenge of ‘Remain’ voters, it was the wipe-out of UKIP in the rest of England which had a clear impact on outcomes.
Following the loss of Trafford, the Conservatives now have a single metropolitan borough (Solihull), but did come close to snatching control in both Dudley and Walsall on the back of UKIP losses. They advanced, too, in Amber Valley (on paper Labour’s easiest chance of a council gain) and in other parts of the Midlands with key marginal parliamentary seats, such as Derby, and Nuneaton and Bedworth.
In other places, though, the fallout was more evenly spread and it is too crude to put the results down simply to a Brexit-driven electoral rift. In Basildon (a Conservative gain), Great Yarmouth, North East Lincolnshire, and Thurrock, both Labour and the Conservatives made ground in former UKIP territory.
In Plymouth, the only case of Labour winning control directly from the Conservatives, its gains were thanks in part to regaining wards it had lost to UKIP in 2014, but where the elected councillors had subsequently defected to the Conservatives. Labour somehow needs to bottle the Plymouth formula if it is to perform strongly at next year’s all-out unitary and district elections and challenge the Conservatives for plurality on the LGA’s boards and committees.
The Liberal Democrats effectively held on to what they had barring their three spectacular council gains – South Cambridgeshire alone accounting for nearly two-thirds of their entire net seat gains (20 out of 34) in shire England. They still have fewer than 10 per cent of all the councillors in England and have a long way to go before the three-party politics which characterised local government in much of the 1990s and 2000s returns. Just a decade ago they had more than 4,000 councillors and majority control in 30 principal councils.
The Greens now claim to be the fourth party in English local politics and in the sense of having overtaken UKIP in both vote share and the total number of councillors (174 to 137) that’s true. Nonetheless there remains evidence that they have been outflanked on the left by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in some places. They lost half their previous 10 seats on Norwich City Council to make them a rather less effective opposition, and were squeezed down to just two councillors in Oxford.
However, it’s really Independents and micro-parties who are the fourth force. There remain more than 1,000 such councillors and they are often best placed to exploit local loyalties or discontents. In Bolton, for example, the Farnworth and Kearsley First group added to their March by-election success with two more gains from Labour; in Tandridge, Surrey, it was opposition to the Local Plan which saw ‘non-party’ candidates lead what one councillor called a ‘bloodbath’ of eight Conservative losses.
The six mayoral direct elections received almost no national attention. Labour easily won the contests in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets – the latter firmly putting to bed the Independent challenge which had so damaged the party in both 2010 and 2014. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that Rokhsana Fiaz, who won almost three-quarters of the first preference vote in Newham, has pledged to hold a referendum on whether her post should be abolished.
Labour MP Dan Jarvis comfortably prevailed in the inaugural Sheffield City Region election and he too has talked about his role becoming redundant – though in this case following the negotiation of a wider Yorkshire devolution deal.
In Watford, Peter Taylor retained the mayoralty for the Liberal Democrats polling just as strongly as his predecessor had done in her four successive victories since 2002.