Seasoned local politicians and observers will have had a twinge of nostalgia as the 3 May local election results unfolded.
For several years local government has been increasingly dominated by the two big parties. Going into these contests, Labour and the Conservatives together controlled more than 80 per cent of all councils and councillors.
Now, however, multi-party politics is back with a vengeance following a leap in the number of Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent councillors and with that a doubling of the number of ‘hung’ councils.
“Brexit obviously played a part in this election, but the results varied so widely from place to place that that is far from the sole explanation
The 81 councils with no one party in overall control is the most since 2009. The number of councillors from other than one of the three main parties (2,084) is the highest for nigh on two decades. The Liberal Democrats, coming from a low base and still far short of their historic highs of the 1990s, can claim their best ever advance in seats at a single election.
This turn around was made possible by an electorate which, while rejecting the national governing party as is common in mid-term local elections, saw little merit in the official opposition. That mood was often reinforced locally as unpopular councils found themselves similarly the victim of discontent and protest voting.
Indeed, Labour’s failure to take advantage of Conservative woes meant that the Conservatives narrowly retained their position as the biggest political group at the LGA, and retain its chairmanship. If Labour had managed any kind of advance, it would have overturned the LGA’s political balance.
Brexit, or rather the failure of the government and the House of Commons to ‘sort it out’, obviously played a part in this election, but the results varied so widely from place to place that that is far from the sole explanation.
Even the Conservatives had some successes, gaining control in three authorities while losing more than one in four of all the council seats they were defending.
In Uttlesford, their trouncing owed much to local controversy over the expansion of London Stansted Airport which the Residents for Uttlesford group have been opposing.
Planning and environmental issues were also to the fore in East Devon, which was taken by Independents for the first time since 1976. As recently as 2011, the Conservatives had 43 of the seats here; now they have 19 out of 60.
In Gravesham, the Conservative ruling group had split in two before the election and although most of the newly Independent Conservatives were not on the ballot paper, Labour gratefully took advantage of the bad blood locally.
Nor was Labour immune to this tendency. In Ashfield, the success of the Independents is the culmination of a long period of making gradual inroads into Labour’s majority through both election victories and defections.
“Multi-party politics is back with a vengeance
The new leader of the council, Jason Zadrozny, was first elected as a Liberal Democrat in 2007, but left the party before the 2015 contests. It is interesting that the Lib Dems, for whom Zadrozny himself came within 192 votes of deposing Labour at the 2010 General Election, this time contested but a single ward in the entire district.
Across the border in Derbyshire, Labour gained Amber Valley directly from the Conservatives but lost Bolsover for the first time since the council was created in 1973. And in the Tees Valley, Middlesbrough gave up 45 years of unbroken Labour rule following a surge by Independents, with Hartlepool, Redcar & Cleveland, and Stockton-on-Tees witnessing a similar phenomenon.
Some defeated councillors blamed Brexit; others Jeremy Corbyn. Many, however, accepted that internal disputes and a failure to connect with the electorate had taken their toll
For the Liberal Democrats, too, there was a sense of ‘back to the future’. They did perhaps predictably well in affluent, Remain-voting areas like Bath & North East Somerset, St Albans, Vale of White Horse and Winchester, where they either hold the parliamentary constituency and/or have held the council in the past.
But they bounced back too in some of what used to be considered their more rural heartlands where Leave was in the ascendency. North Devon, North Norfolk and the newly created Somerset West and Taunton all went Liberal Democrat for the first time in a decade or more.
One of the biggest shocks was in the Essex commuter territory of Chelmsford. A Liberal near-miss constituency as far back as 1983, the party had recently sunk into oblivion until jumping from five to 31 seats last week. The Lib Dems also gained Cotswold for the first time.
With memories of tuition fees and the Coalition Government fading, it appears that many voters once again see the Liberal Democrats as an appropriate vehicle for protest at least.
In terms of a proportional increase in councillors, it is the Greens who did best of all. Their tally nearly quadrupled from 71 to 263 to firmly establish their place as the albeit distant fourth party in England.
In most places they picked up just a couple of seats, but local agreements with the Liberal Democrats in Folkestone and Hythe (the former Shepway) and Mendip, for example, brought greater reward. It is also interesting to note that they recovered ground in councils like Brighton & Hove and Norwich where they had looked outflanked by Labour on the left since Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. No longer, it seems.
With the media focused on the national implications of the results for Labour and the Conservatives – ‘drubbing’ seemed to be the mot du jour – the six mayoral contests struggled for other than local attention. There was drama here too, though.
In Middlesbrough, Independent Andy Preston, who had lost by 362 votes in 2015, secured a landslide first ballot victory nearly 11,000 votes ahead of his Labour opponent in second place.
In Mansfield, by contrast, Independent incumbent Kate Allsop, 1,000 behind Labour in the first count, failed by just two votes to catch Andy Abrahams up when second ballots were taken into account.
Elsewhere, Sir Peter Soulsby in Leicester remained above the fray, easily winning election for a third time with an even greater share of the vote. How his Labour party colleagues (and indeed Conservative rivals) across the country would love to know the secret.
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Councillors (England) 2019
Council control change May 2019
Con gain from Lab: North East Derbyshire.
Con gain from NOC: North East Lincolnshire, Walsall.
Lab gain from Con: Amber Valley, High Peak.
Lab gain from NOC: Calderdale, Gravesham, Trafford.
Lib Dem gain from Con: Bath & North East Somerset, Chelmsford, Cotswold, Hinckley & Bosworth, Mole Valley, Somerset West and Taunton, Teignbridge, Vale of White Horse, Winchester.
Lib Dem gain from NOC: North Devon, North Norfolk, South Somerset.
Ind gain from Con: East Devon, North Kesteven, Uttlesford.
Ind gain from NOC: Ashfield.
Con lose to NOC: Arun, Babergh, Basildon, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole, Broxtowe, Cheshire East, Chichester, Craven, Eden, Folkestone & Hythe, Guildford, Herefordshire, Malvern Hills, Mendip, Mid Devon, Mid Suffolk, North Hertfordshire, North Somerset, Pendle, Peterborough, Richmondshire, Rother, South Oxfordshire, Southend-on-Sea, South Ribble, St Albans, Staffordshire Moorlands, Swale, Tandridge, Tendring, Torbay, Torridge, Warwick, Welwyn Hatfield, Woking, Wyre Forest.
Lab lose to NOC: Bolsover, Burnley, Cannock Chase, Cheshire West & Chester, Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Wirral.