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Without a clear message, voters will continue to look beyond main parties

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LGC’s essential daily briefing 

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said the “The medium is the message” in asserting that the channel through which the message is delivered is more important than the content and meaning of the message itself.

In the modern political landscape, it feels that information distributed digitally, and through social media in particular, is a dominant force in shaping opinion and perspective. Therefore, is our “watchdog of the mind”, as McLuhan argued, being distracted by the content and causing us to miss the significance of changes in the way we interact, such as the loss of civility in political discourse?

This week independent Andy Preston wiped the floor with the opposition to sweep to victory in the Middlesbrough council mayoral election. In a traditionally Labour area, he won over 10,000 more votes than the party’s candidate. While it was a disappointing night for Labour nationally, who failed to exploit “car crash” results for the Conservatives, it was a devastating for the party across the Tees Valley, where it no longer has overall control of any council.

Speaking to LGC, Mr Preston described local politics in Middlesbrough as a toxic cocktail of anger, denial and arrogance which had caused a widespread loss of faith in local governance. While not blaming Labour councillors, he said tactics had become sinister and nasty. As holding power for so long had created complacency and a lack of self-scrutiny amongst Labour locally, he argued, a disillusionment with national politics caused by the handling of Brexit had also become firmly embedded locally.

He cited the example of the publicity sent out by the council as contributing to this malaise. The medium of ever positive press releases, he said, had not distracted the communities’ “watchdog of the mind” as their lives and surroundings remained largely unchanged, with continuing high levels of crime and poverty as the economy struggles.

Chair of the Local Government Association Lord Porter (Con) refused to be drawn on the reasons for the collapse in the Conservative vote at the local elections. But he suggested he did not believe the government’s handling of Brexit was the overriding factor, saying he was awaiting a “post-mortem” in what had gone wrong in local areas. Perhaps Conservative activists had failed to cut through the insistent noise and psychological fug of Brexit with a strong enough message on local issues and the best way forward. Or maybe the message could be convincing, but it was delivered through the wrong medium of door step Conservative activists whose standing was tainted by the failings of their party in government?

Beyond a broad rejection of the two main political parties in Westminster, there is no simple explanation for the success of the Liberal Democrats and independents. The Lib Dems were part of a coalition government less than a decade ago, at a time when the austerity that has impacted so hard on communities across the country was sanctioned, so a vote for them was hardly a kick in the teeth of the political establishment. But the Lib Dems stance on Brexit, unlike the two main parties, is unambiguous, decisive and easily understood. 

The surge in votes for independents certainly suggests a rejection of political norms, but to understand voter support for such an amorphous group often defined by specific local interests and issues is tricky. For those who conclude that the rise of independents is purely down to failings over Brexit may be surprised to learn that Mr Preston, a former Labour member and wealthy international fancier who led the remain campaign on behalf businesses in the north east, is not a fringe operator. He, and the fellow independents who are now the largest group at Middlesbrough are “centrists”, he says. While some may be “slightly left or slightly right” they are united in their desire to change the political culture in the town, grow the economy and improve lives.

Michael Payne, deputy leader of Gedling BC, a councillor at Nottinghamshire CC and a group officer for the LGA’s Labour group, told LGC the success of Liberal Democrats and independents was due to them presenting themselves as “insurgents against the status quo”. He also warned of the complacency Mr Preston said had taken hold in Middlesbrough when he said “councils should never be satisfied… and constantly strive for improvement”. Cllr Payne also expressed disappointment that Labour had fallen just short of taking control of the LGA and stressed the importance of setting out a clear plan to tackle the challenges being faced.

Both the Conservatives and Labour will be closely examining the drivers behind the election results to identify any tactical mistakes. But with both parties nationally showing no signs of a delivering a coherent, broadly acceptable message in uncertain times, decisive electoral success, both nationally and locally, is likely to elude them.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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