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Brexit stalemate has given smaller parties – and local issues – a chance

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Commentary on the night’s local election results

The national take on those local election results that have so far been confirmed will be about the level of discontent with the main two parties.

There is a disgust about Brexit: the very fact that it’s still due to be happening, if you’re a remainer; or the fact that it hasn’t happened yet if you’re a leaver.

The Conservative government has basically been unable to govern amid the Brexit quagmire: the social care green paper never materialises, to give one example relevant to our sector. When the defence secretary allegedly leaks top secret material to boost his political standing in a forthcoming leadership election, you get a sense that things are pretty dire.

Labour, meanwhile, has tried to be all things to all people – but its Brexit fence-sitting has hardly been endearing to those on either side of the Brexit divide.

As a result of all of this both main parties appear to have lost ground.

The Conservatives probably always expected to lose seats from their high-watermark level of 2015, when the local elections coincided with David Cameron’s general election victory (the one in which he successfully warded off “chaos with Ed Miliband”…). However, it so far feels the party has avoided oblivion. While the Tories have lost a string of councils to no overall control, it is far from a wipe out. Victories in Walsall MBC and North East Lincolnshire Council will alleviate some of the gloom.

Labour seems to have lost ground in many leave-supporting areas, losing Hartlepool BC and Wirral MBC. It appears to have done rather better in the south of England but even here was still unable to take Swindon BC – a political bellwether whose car factory is closing down when the Conservative government is imploding. Its rare Trafford MBC success came in one of the north of England’s few remain-voting seats.

It is the smaller parties who have more to cheer.

At the time of writing the Liberal Democrats were up over 270 seats, winning Bath & North East Somerset, Cotswold DC and Winchester City Council directly from the Tories. However, this staunchly remain party seems also to have done pretty well even in leave areas.

The same is true of the Green party, up 33 seats, including in previously staunchly socialist South Tyneside Council or Michael Howard’s old Tory stamping ground of Folkestone & Hythe DC.

And the Independents have had a hugely successful local elections so far, currently up 200 seats. Independents resoundingly gained Ashfield DC in Nottinghamshire and achieved a narrower victory in North Kesteven DC. Independent Andy Preston earned a huge swing to take the Middlesbrough Council mayoralty.

Marianne Overton, leader of the Independent group at the Local Government Association, this week predicted to LGC that her group would do best. “They are well organised and will connect well with their communities,” she said.

Cllr Overton has a point. All too often it is that national issues that dominate local elections. The fate of local councillors – whether they are doing well or badly – is sealed by their national party’s performance. Independents, by their very nature, have to make a case to their local electorate that is very much based on local fortunes.

It would be incorrect to say that there has been a dramatic swing in favour of local issues in the minds of the electorate in this set of elections: Brexit dominates everything.

However, in places the big two parties’ Brexit travails have cancelled each other out. And the fact that Labour has had a bad night in its leave-voting heartlands and the Conservatives have poorly performed in leafy Middle England has stirred things up somewhat. With old dominances diminishing, local issues have become more relevant.

Controversy over the green belt contributed to the Greens winning two seats on Wirral MBC. Labour did badly on Sunderland City Council amid anger at one of its councillors’ conviction for a child sex offence.

So a political scene dominated by Brexit may have perversely brought local issues more to the fore. This said, only half of councils were counting overnight: LGC will be reporting on all the results as they happen during Friday.

It may be too soon to draw any definitive conclusions from this set of elections. However, it’s hard to predict anything other than that this will be a poor set of elections for the Conservatives and Labour – but a good one for the smaller parties and Independents.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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