The electors’ verdict

Labour will have to wait to see if May’s local election results presage a General Election victory.  

There can be no doubt, though, that it is now the largest party in local government for the first time in years and, consequently, has nominated the LGA’s next chair – Cllr Shaun Davies, Leader of Telford & Wrekin Council, who will be elected at the LGA’s General Assembly on 4 July.

The Conservatives have fewer councillors than at any time since 1998, though they still have some way to fall to hit the nadir of the last days of John Major’s government, when they controlled just 13 councils across the entire country. 

Aside from Conservative woes and Labour progress, the elections were notable for the performance of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. 

The former returned more councillors and have a majority in more councils than at any time since they felt the electoral backlash from joining David Cameron’s coalition government; the latter won their first council outright (Mid Suffolk) and have a plurality of seats in nine others, including East Hertfordshire, Forest of Dean, and Lewes. 

Labour was already the dominant party in the metropolitan boroughs and found it hard to make much further headway, though there will be disappointment at failing to take advantage of all-out elections to post an overall majority in Bolton and Wirral. 

In Bolton, the continuing success of local Independent candidates remained a source of frustration for Labour; in Wirral, it was the Greens rather than Labour who recorded most gains at Conservative expense.  

The only three Conservative-controlled metropolitan boroughs are in the West Midlands and the party held on comfortably in each case. Indeed, across Dudley, Solihull and Walsall, they made a net gain of one seat. 

Labour’s chance in Dudley may come next year when the Conservatives will have to defend their overwhelming victory from 2021. 

Greater drama attended the elections in the unitary authorities. 

Medway, Swindon and, more surprisingly, Bracknell Forest flipped directly from the Conservatives to Labour. 

In Plymouth, the Conservatives faced a perfect storm of intra-party rows, councillor defections, and the contentious felling of trees in the city centre, which attracted global attention on social media. The verdict of the electors was damning, as they lost all but a single seat. 

In Windsor and Maidenhead, and West Berkshire, it was the Liberal Democrats who shocked the ruling Conservatives. In each case, their gains and Conservative losses were in double figures.

The Conservatives were less central to the story in parts of the so-called ‘red wall’, where Labour was successful in clawing back seats and control thanks to the demise of Independents. 

Middlesbrough, which Labour lost for the first time ever in 2019, is now back in the party’s hands; in neighbouring Hartlepool, scene of a dramatic Conservative parliamentary by-election victory in 2021, it is on the cusp of a majority. 

Further south, in Stoke-on-Trent, Labour also persuaded voters back to the fold following their flirtation with localist candidates.  

Taken together, these results suggest that Labour may have come through the worst of its nightmare in Leave-voting, post-industrial England. 

The unitaries also provided some good examples of how local elections often remain just that. 

Labour took control in Brighton & Hove following discontent with the Greens and their role in the previous administration. In Slough, Labour suffered for the council’s perceived financial failings. 

And in Leicester, inter-community rivalry seems to have been behind a dramatic swing to the Conservatives against the national run of play. 

It was in the districts that the Liberal Democrats and Greens really made their mark, together gaining more seats than Labour. 

Labour had its moments though. In the former coalfield areas of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, it registered some impressive turnovers.  

In Amber Valley and North East Derbyshire, it was the Conservatives who suffered; in Mansfield, it was the Independents who collapsed. Labour now controls 11 of the 14 district councils in those two counties. 

In Kent, Labour showed that Medway was not just a flash in the pan by gaining Dartford, Dover, and Thanet. It is worth remembering that parliamentary constituencies covering those areas were won by Labour throughout the Tony Blair years. 

“The elections were notable for the performance of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens”

Highlights for the Liberal Democrats included Devon – where it swept into power in four councils – Surrey, and West Sussex. 

Victory in districts such as Guildford and Teignbridge recalled parliamentary-level success in the eponymous constituencies in the 2000s.  

In Hertfordshire, the party took Dacorum (Hemel Hempstead), riding on the coat-tails of neighbouring St Albans which has become one of the party’s beacons. 

In Stratford-upon-Avon, on the other hand, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Liberal Democrats were assisted by voter reaction to the travails of Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi.

The Greens’ likely advance in Mid Suffolk had been widely trailed, but they took a leaf out of the Liberal Democrat playbook by spreading their tentacles into neighbouring authorities too, becoming the largest party in both Babergh and East Suffolk. 

Their gains in Lewes were in stark contrast to the outcome in next-door Brighton & Hove; in East Hertfordshire they gained an astonishing 18 seats as environmental issues came to the fore. 

One of the rare Conservative council gains was in Wyre Forest.  

This marked the effective end of the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern group, which once briefly had a clear majority of seats on the council and managed to elect an MP at both the 2001 and 2005 general elections. 

Finally, it is worth reflecting that voting rules do matter. 

The introduction of voter photo identification at polling stations was controversial, but seems to have had little impact in aggregate terms.  

That will not, of course, assuage those who forgot to bring it or who have found it difficult to source an appropriate document. The issue is likely to return to the spotlight at the next General Election.

“The introduction of voter ID was controversial, but seems to have had little impact”

And two defeated incumbent mayors do probably have cause to rue the change in their contests from the ‘supplementary vote’ (SV) system to the more familiar ‘first past the post’ method of election. 

Independent Andy Preston, in Middlesbrough, and Liberal Democrat Dave Hodgson, in Bedford, were each narrowly beaten. Both could reasonably have expected to pick up the majority of second-preference votes from those candidates who would have been eliminated under the SV system, allowing them to continue in office. 

Such is politics.

Results summary 2023 England

(compared to pre-election, including councils without elections, local by-elections, defections and structural/boundary changes)

ConLabLib DemGreenInd/otherNo overall control

Councils controlled (England) 2023

ConLabLib DemGreenInd/otherNo overall control

Councillors (England) 2023

ConLabLib DemGreenInd/other

In the zone

Planning fee proposals ‘not enough to break even’