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Rallings & Thrasher: voters turned their backs on the main two parties

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Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, associate members of Nuffield College, Oxford, give their analysis of last Thursday’s council elections.

The 2019 elections not only saw the return of the Liberal Democrats but also a broad variety of Independent councillors.

It is the latter that may prove to be a catalyst for shaping a new style of local politics. Voters are demonstrating frustration with the behaviour of the two main parties. Defeated Conservative incumbents and disappointed Labour hopefuls have just witnessed that at first hand.

During the 1970s, a fifth of councillors self-described as Independents. Two decades later, fewer than one in 10 did so, overshadowed and out-manoeuvred by better resourced party organisations. In recent years, however, a revival began. The result of dissatisfaction with single-party dominated administrations in some places, or elsewhere, party splits driven by ideological or policy differences.

This May provided the perfect conditions for Independents to flourish once more. There were double-digit numbers of Independents elected in 22 of 248 councils. The list is led by the Ashfield [DC] Independents who took seats from all the parties but especially Labour. In Bolsover DC too, Independents made a significant contribution towards ending Labour’s unbroken 46-year reign as the party’s vote share crashed by 24-percentage points compared with the 2015 election.

But the impact of Independents was felt most by Conservative councillors seeking re-election. In the new West Suffolk Council district, we estimate 19 Conservative councillors who might have expected to be elected are absent from the council’s benches. In Uttlesford, where the election was fought on existing boundaries, the Residents for Uttlesford [DC] slates triumphed and joined two other authorities, East Devon and North Kesteven DCs, in forging Independent controlled councils from former Conservative territory.

Conservative losses were particularly heavy in areas vulnerable to a combined attack from Independents and savvy Liberal Democrats sensing weakness in a national Conservative party under-estimating its vulnerability in local government. In Waverley BC, the Conservatives lost 30 seats in equal measure to the Residents’ Association and Liberal Democrats. A Conservative administration had looked likely in both the new unitary, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council, and the newly-merged district of Somerset West & Taunton Council. Instead, the former is hung while the latter now has a Liberal Democrat administration. The dramatic rise in the incidence of hung councils, from 43 to 79, is evidence of such shifts in local votes.

The transfer of seats away from the Conservatives in Hart and Tandridge DCs and Tunbridge Wells BC may not have been on the same scale but in all three areas the party’s vote declined by more than 20 percentage points.

Indeed, the south east, south west and east of England regions accounted for three-quarters of Conservative seat losses. Any prospect that the Conservatives might benefit from Ukip’s collapse in these areas was obliterated by the greater attraction among voters of supporting the Liberal Democrats and the Greens as protest trumped any ideological concerns over these parties’ positions regarding Europe. Over 500 of Liberal Democrat gains and seven in 10 of those achieved by the Greens came in these three regions.

There is a familiar ring to the Liberal Democrat recovery which saw it almost double the councils it controls. Vote share increased by more than 20 points in Hull City Council, North Norfolk DC and Vale of White Horse DC, all of which were under their control until coalition government all but destroyed the party’s local government base. A rise in electoral support in Chelmsford City Council, to levels not seen since the last decade of the last century, saw the party post its best performance with 26 gains causing the council to flip directly from Conservative to Liberal Democrat. That fate awaited eight other councils, including Bath & NE Somerset Council and Cotswold, Mole Valley and Teignbridge DCs, none of which had previously been under the party’s control.

The more modest success for the Green party has been widely attributed to the Extinction Rebellion movement. But one feature playing a significant role is the decision in some areas to form quasi-pacts with the Liberal Democrats such that voters might divide multiple votes across the two parties. Brighton & Hove City Council remains hung because the Greens captured eight seats there and are now within one seat of Labour. Here, and in a further eight authorities, including Solihull MBC and Mid Suffolk DC, the Greens are the second largest party.

There is no disputing these elections were awful for the Conservatives, the worst since the drubbing received in 1995, but the party remains the largest party of local government. In large part this situation arises because Labour’s performance is among the worst by an opposition party. Labour’s overall vote in 130 local authorities, where complete results are available and comparison with the 2015 election is possible, shows a rise in 56 but a drop in 74, including Barnsley MBC with a 31-percentage point decline.

Jeremy Corbyn launched the party’s local election campaign in Stoke-on-Trent City Council, regarded as a banker to return to the Labour fold. Instead, it lost ground to the Conservatives. In post-election interviews he name-checked Amber Valley and High Peak BCs and Trafford MBC, which the party did gain, but bizarrely mentioned Swindon BC where Labour missed an easy target after losing rather than gaining ground.

There is a clear regional skew in these results, with Labour doing badly in the north and Midlands – 186 seats were lost here. The early declarations in Sunderland City Council made sombre viewing for party supporters with any rival, including Ukip, often preferred to Labour incumbents. Elsewhere in the north east Labour lost majority control in Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees BCs and Middlesbrough Council. North East Derbyshire DC was gained directly by the Conservatives, Burnley BC, Cannock Chase DC, Cheshire West & Chester Council and Wirral MBC become hung while Walsall MBC and North East Lincolnshire Council now have Conservative administrations courtesy of Labour losses.

Decline in its heartland meant that Labour needed to compensate and advance in the south, in areas last mined successfully during the Blair era. But only in the south east, where 86 net gains were made, is there anything positive to say about this campaign.

Understandably, voter turnout declined markedly because the previous elections were held on the same day as the 2015 parliamentary election. Comparisons with previous electoral cycles suggest that this was not the ‘stay at home’ election that some expected but rather an election that will be remembered as one where many voters turned their backs on the two main parties and quite possibly national politics also. These newly-elected Independent councillors now have four years in which to stamp their new brand on local government.

 

Council seat gains and losses in last week’s elections

  Mets Unitary Districts Total

Conservatives

-23

-240

-1072

-1335

Labour

-55

-48

17

-86

Lib Dems

34

145

525

704

Ukip

0

-10

-132

-142

Green

17

31

144

192

Ind/Other

27

122

518

667

 

Council seats won last week 

  Mets Unitary Districts Total

Conservatives

119

698

2,742

3,559

Labour

472

589

959

2,020

Lib Dems

80

287

84

1,351

Ukip

4

8

22

34

Green

24

51

188

263

Ind/Other

35

251

912

1,198

Total

734

1,884

5,807

8,425

 

 

Councillors following 2019 local elections

  Con Lab Lib Dem Ind/Other Nat Total

Scotland

270

254

65

217

421

1,227

Wales

179

460

60

354

201

1,254

London

511

1,121

154

47

 

1,833

Mets

387

1,640

215

158

 

2,400

Counties

1,150

257

217

117

 

1,741

Districts

3,874

1,552

1,361

1,301

 

8,088

Unitaries

1,136

1,048

459

461

 

3,104

GB

7,507

6,332

2,531

2,655

622

19,647

England

7,058

5,618

2,406

2,084

0

17,166

 

Council control

  Con Lab LD Ind/Other Nat NOC Total

Scotland

0

0

0

3

0

29

32

Wales

1

7

0

3

1

10

22

London

7

21

3

0

0

1

32

Mets

2

30

0

0

0

4

36

Counties

23

0

0

0

0

3

26

Districts

95

25

19

5

0

48

192

Unitaries

16

15

1

0

0

23

55

GB

144

98

23

11

1

118

395

England

143

91

23

5

0

79

341

 

 

Changes in Council Control

Con gain from Lab:

North East Derbyshire DC

Con gain from NOC:

North East Lincolnshire Council, Walsall MBC

Lab gain from Con:

Amber Valley BC, High Peak BC

Lab gain from NOC:

Calderdale MBC, Gravesham BC, Trafford MBC

LD gain from Con:

Bath & North East Somerset Council, Chelmsford City Council, Cotswold DC, Hinckley & Bosworth BC, Mole Valley DC, Somerset West & Taunton Council, Teignbridge DC, Vale of White Horse DC, Winchester City Council

LD gain from NOC:

North Devon, North Norfolk, South Somerset

Ind gain from Con:

East Devon DC, North Kesteven DC, Uttlesford DC

Ind gain from NOC:

Ashfield DC

Con lose to NOC:

Arun DC, Babergh DC, Basildon BC, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council, Broxtowe BC, Cheshire East Council, Chichester DC, Craven DC, Eden DC, Folkestone & Hythe DC, Guildford BC, Herefordshire Council, Malvern Hills DC, Mendip DC, Mid Devon DC, Mid Suffolk DC, North Hertfordshire DC, North Somerset Council, Pendle BC, Peterborough City Council, Richmondshire DC, Rother DC, South Oxfordshire DC, Southend-on-Sea BC, South Ribble BC, St Albans City & DC, Staffordshire Moorlands DC, Swale BC, Tandridge DC, Tendring DC, Torbay Council, Torridge DC, Warwick DC, Welwyn Hatfield BC, Woking BC, Wyre Forest DC

Lab lose to NOC:

Bolsover DC, Burnley BC, Cannock Chase DC, Cheshire West & Chester Council, Darlington BC, Hartlepool BC, Middlesbrough Council, Stockton-on-Tees BC, Wirral MBC

Mayoral Results:

Bedford BC: Lib Dem hold

Copeland BC: Ind hold

Leicester City Council: Labour hold

Mansfield DC: Lab gain from Ind

Middlesbrough Council: Ind gain from Lab

North of Tyne CA: Labour win

 

National equivalent vote at local elections

 201120152019

Conservative

38

36

31

Labour

37

32

31

Liberal Democrat

16

10

17

Ukip

N/A

12

4

Other

9

10

17

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