Along with Alex Salmond’s smile, it’s been impossible to miss the virtual collapse of the Lib Dem power base in English local government.
For Labour and the Conservatives the results were more nuanced, but there can be no doubt the Lib Dems have borne the brunt of the nation’s disaffection with the coalition. It had been widely anticipated that the Lib Dems would suffer badly and attempts by Lib Dem council leaders to distance themselves from the centre were never going to be enough.
Frustratingly as ever, national politics dominated voting patters. The tsunami of vitriol, targeted predominantly at Nick Clegg, engulfed local politics and made records of local achievement irrelevant. It was a terrible day for Lib Dems, but was little worse than had been expected.
For Labour, this was not the tectonic shift that some had been predicting
The more complex pictures emerge for Labour and the Conservatives. It appears the Tories suffered little for their role in the national cuts – perhaps because this approach appeals to their core vote, and perhaps because some were enticed out by the No to AV vote.
For Labour, this was strong and steady progress, but not the tectonic shift that some had been predicting. Eight hundred seats was around the minimum some experts had been demanding for a ‘good performance’, and this was precisely the number that emerged. The party will be reassured by the fact that their share of the vote was 37% (up from 29% in the General Election) compared to the Tories on 35% and the Lib Dems on 15%, but this will not hide some degree of disappointment.
The important gains were the big northern metropolitan cities, which gave a real show of strength for Labour, such as Newcastle, Leeds, Bolton, Stoke, Hull and notoriously, Mr Clegg’s Sheffield. There were also some very strong swings to Labour in Liverpool and Manchester, where Labour won every seat for the first time ever.
These councils are particularly interesting, as they had been provocatively singled out by both Eric Pickles and the Prime Minister with accusations of wastefulness and politically motivated cuts. The councils were the clear winners of this very public scuffle.
Some important gains were made for Labour in areas in the south in which it will feel it needs to regain a toe-hold if it is to win swing seats come the next general election. Yet they will feel some disappointment that there weren’t greater gains in Conservative-held areas. Trafford, Harlow, Tamworth and Dover all held out despite strong Labour efforts.
The political temperature in local government is set to get much warmer over the months ahead
Perceived wisdom tells us that once a party is in power, the pendulum starts to swing back to the opposition, but the Tories seem to be defying that at this stage, actually gaining 81 seats and four councils. The expectation is that next year will be the decisive year as many of the seats that the Conservatives unexpectedly won in 2008 will be up for election. A truer picture may start to emerge then.
So while the Tories remain the dominant force in local government, Labour is beginning to re-awaken. In the light of this, Friday saw the launch of Progressive Localism a new online forum for the centre-left for sharing the latest thinking on local public services and local government. This new momentum could see Labour starting to use its power base to push back much harder against government reform, or indeed taking new localism powers to try to use them in defiance of the coalition’s agenda.
Moreover, with real pressure on the Lib Dems in the coalition, now bereft of their local government bastion, and with a potential return to two-party politics fighting narrow ground in marginal southern seats, there can be no doubt that the political temperature in local government is set to get much warmer over the months ahead.
Anna Turley, editor, ProgLoc, an independent blog representing a centre-left perspective in local government - www.progloc.org