This was the fifth consecutive general election scheduled alongside local elections. There are not simply administrative complications following this coincidence, particularly acute given that this year represents the peak of the electoral cycle.
An enormous consequence is that proper assessment of the local political landscape is overlooked, despite its impact on people’s lives over the coming years. National media obsesses over the runners and riders for party leadership contests or Cabinet posts, neglecting local government democracy.
There are significant changes in the political complexion of local government across Britain following the 2015 poll. As our figures show, more than three-quarters of councils across the country are now under the majority control of one or other of the two main parties. This is the highest level since reorganisation in the 1970s and considerably different from the situation that prevailed in the mid-1990s. Much is said about multi-party Britain but it is time instead to talk about two-party local government.
Indeed, it is not simply council control where the two parties dominate. The proportion of council seats held by Conservative or Labour stands at 77%, equalling the peak last seen in 1980.
The underlying explanation for this state of affairs is the relative demise of the Liberal Democrats. Their parliamentary party has been virtually obliterated but importantly so has their local government base, the army of activists that delivered pavement politics.
With fewer than two thousand councillors, the party is back to 1983 when the fledgling Alliance was learning to fly and about to build a strong third-party presence. The stark reality is that as we write almost a third of councils in Britain no longer have a single Liberal Democrat councillor.
This decade-long decline in councillor numbers has cost the party more of its flagship authorities. The number dwindles further following the loss of Hinckley & Bosworth BC to the Conservatives and a further three authorities, including Watford BC, moving into no overall control.
While two-party politics returns to local government, therefore, there is no question that it is the Conservatives that hold the better hand, a situation likely to continue for a while yet given these authorities mostly employ whole council elections.
Overall, the party added almost 500 seats but crucially another 28 councils also. Local parties celebrate most when ousting the principal rival Labour as happened in Amber Valley, Gravesham and North Warwickshire BCs.
It is a much longer list of authorities, however, that now migrate from no overall control into the Conservative column. In Babergh DC, for example, no single party has ever had majority control until now but the election of 31 Conservatives alters that. Eden DC was formerly run by Independents until falling into minority control status in 2007 but now is fully under Conservative control. South Gloucestershire Council, established during the restructuring process in the mid-1990s, and governed for a time by the Liberal Democrats, has a Conservative majority administration for the first time.
On the opposite side of the ledger the Conservatives lost control in both Boston BC and Tendring DC, which perhaps provide a portent of the party’s future vulnerability now that discussions about immigration and Europe are to the fore again. These results were not as spectacular as that in Thanet which provided Ukip with consolation for the disappointment of not seeing its leader elected to Parliament. There, 33 Ukip councillors were elected, almost double the number of Conservatives. In all Ukip made a further net gain of 112 council seats, largely although not exclusively across authorities in eastern England.
Another round of local elections brings further disappointment for Labour. Instead of advancing it fell back, losing seats, mainly to the Conservatives but also to Ukip in some urban areas. Aside from its solitary gain of Cheshire West & Chester Council from the Conservatives it crossed the winning line only in Stockton-on-Tees BC and also in West Lancashire DC, which appears periodically to flip from one party or another, punctuated by brief periods of no overall control.
But Labour suffered a net loss of councils, watching its majorities evaporate in the adjoining authorities of Newcastle-under-Lyme BC and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, where Independents and Ukip continue to challenge in what were once thought to be solidly Labour areas. In Plymouth City Council and Telford & Wrekin Council the party suffered defeat and disappointment at both the parliamentary and local elections.
Indeed, local government provides a rather clear picture of the scale of Labour’s challenge. Tony Blair’s victory in the 1997 general election is often used as the benchmark, marking as it does Labour’s ability then to gain traction across southern England.
In fact, the foundations for that success were laid two years earlier when the party’s local government presence was greater than that for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats combined. Almost one local authority in two was being run by a Labour administration when Blair secured his landslide. The topic of local government has to be given a high priority in the leadership battle.
Although the Green party held its parliamentary seat, its councillors on Brighton & Hove City Council suffered losses as voters distinguished apart the virtues of Caroline Lucas and the sad state of council-run services. While the party retains pockets of support in both Bristol and Norwich, where the council base is being used to mount a challenge at the parliamentary level, there are few other authorities where more than one or two Green councillors occupy council seats. The party’s structure appears to rob it of the nous to organise sustained local election campaigns.
None of the mayoral elections saw an incumbent defeated. Middlesbrough’s Ray Mallon stood down but none of the four Independent candidates hoping to replace him were successful. It was Labour’s Dave Budd, formerly a deputy mayor and long-standing local councillor, who prevailed. But it proved a close finish with only 256 votes separating him from Andy Preston following the redistribution of second votes.
The inaugural mayoral election in Copeland, prompted by referendum approval in 2014, produced a win for Mike Starkie standing as an Independent. Since no candidate won more than half the votes following the first count only Starkie and his Labour opponent, Steve Gibbons, proceeded into the second round. The elimination of the Conservative candidate proved vital to the outcome since most of these voters supported the Independent with their second votes. A large number of ballots were spoiled.