Electoral bounces and bombshells

The vaccine rollout provided a spring electoral bounce for the governments of all three nations of Britain.

In England, the local elections further boosted the Conservatives by consolidating their general election success in many leave-voting areas of the north and midlands.

Labour, by contrast, registered a net loss of council seats for the fifth time in six years, leaving it to take comfort from a couple of victories against the run of play in mayoral contests.

The writing was on the wall for Labour once the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election became one of the first results to be announced at breakfast time the day after the 6 May polls.

With most councils taking longer than usual to count because of COVID-19 restrictions, this gave the Conservatives a head start in setting the agenda for post-election analysis – not that the initial council returns told a hugely different story.

In Dudley, the Conservatives gained 12 seats from Labour and took control with more councillors than they have had at any time in the authority’s 50-year history. In neighbouring Sandwell, they went from zero councillors to nine.

On the other side of the west midlands conurbation in Nuneaton and Bedworth, Labour lost 10 seats direct to the Conservatives to post an all-time low tally.

The bulk of the party’s losses came as expected in seats last contested in 2016 and held over for a year because of the pandemic. Then, Labour had been neck and neck with the Conservatives in the polls and the politics of the pre-EU referendum era had a very different feel.

An overall comparison with five years ago shows Labour losing over 250 seats as their vote share dropped by more than 3 percentage points. The Conservatives, on the other hand, made a similar number of gains and advanced by more than 7 points on average.

They benefited in large part from the unwind of what was still quite solid UKIP support back then to help them across the line. The Hartlepool parliamentary result writ large.

Things were less dire for Labour in the north west. Liverpool, despite the current scandal, and Manchester still have no Conservative councillors. Labour is no longer the largest party in Bolton, but it did stave off the threat from both Conservatives and Independents in Bury.

But it wasn’t only in the north that Labour suffered. Towns and cities in southern England which became synonymous with the Blair electoral tsunami two decades ago are now in Conservative hands.

Southampton and Harlow flipped directly from Labour; Basildon and Gloucester are no longer ‘hung’; and the Conservatives are now the largest party in Plymouth having toppled the previous Labour regime.

The elections for county and county unitary authorities, which were always due to be held this year, took place against the rather different background of Theresa May’s local triumph (and, as it turned out, electoral false dawn) in May 2017.

In truth there hasn’t been much overall movement since 2017 for either major party, though individual results do help paint a wider picture.

The Conservatives trebled their majority in Derbyshire from eight to 26 seats and took more decisive leads in Lancashire and Nottinghamshire.

In a move which will interest councillors across the country, Mansfield MP Ben Bradley was elected in Nottinghamshire and announced he intends to combine Westminster duties with being leader of the county.
In Durham, Labour lost 20 seats on top of a similar number it had surrendered in 2017. More confirmation of its ‘red wall’ problem.

In some parts of the south, though, where there are more affluent and remain-supporting voters, it was the Conservatives who fell back.

In Oxfordshire and Surrey, both Liberal Democrats and Greens made progress at Conservative expense. In Cambridgeshire, the Conservatives lost overall control with Labour and the Liberal Democrats each gaining ground.

In West Sussex (and in the Worthing district contests), Labour won seats in line with gradual changes in the local demography to a younger, more university-educated population.

The signs of this ‘new politics’ can be seen in other results too. The Liberal Democrats gained St Albans and held on comfortably in other strongholds like Cheltenham and Winchester.

In Bristol, the Greens gained a dozen previously Labour seats and the two parties are now tied in the council chamber.

But in Cornwall, with its older leave-voting electorate, it is a different story. In a county in which the Liberal Democrats won every constituency at the 2005 general election and were the largest party on the council for a quarter of a century until 2009, they now have just 13 out of 87 councillors.

This pattern can be put into context by one of Labour’s few moments of celebration during what became a weekend of bitter election fallout and recrimination. The party’s unexpected victory in the second round of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority mayoral contest contains two related lessons.

First, the number of parties competing for left of centre votes immediately puts them at a disadvantage against a single centre-right party in ‘first past the post’ elections. Second, electoral success can follow overt or tacit pacts between them.

The sitting Conservative mayor was comfortably ahead on the first ballot with Labour in second place. The second preferences of the Liberal Democrat were then distributed almost three to one in favour of Labour, allowing its candidate to come through to win.

Most other mayoral contests took a predictable course – though the contrasting yet landslide victories of Conservative Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester can teach all parties a thing or two about the power of personality and of being seen to deliver for your community.

One less remarked upon aspect of this election round was the large number of casual vacancies being filled. More than a year of pent up demand was released on 6 May with as many as 260 contests taking place in councils without other scheduled elections.

These, too, proved a bonanza for the Conservatives, who made 64 gains and sustained just two losses.
One of Labour’s rare gains did, however, have both practical and symbolic significance. It took a seat from Independents in Bolsover to regain control in a council covering the constituency held for half a century until his defeat in December 2019 by party stalwart Dennis Skinner.

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