Local elections dilemma

With the final result in the London Borough of Havering declared fully 96 hours after the polls closed, this year’s local elections truly were a slow burn.

On the night of 5 May and into the following Friday morning, Labour looked to be on course for its best local level performance for a decade. 

But as Friday morphed into Saturday it became clear that it was the Liberal Democrats who were the major beneficiaries of Conservative decline, making several times more gains than Labour in England.

The Greens, too, fared well, easily doubling the number of seats they were defending. 

With Labour picking up scarcely two dozen extra seats across England, the party made little headway in challenging the Conservatives for control of the LGA.

And if the Greens poll as effectively at next year’s local elections – which are concentrated in the English shires – it is just possible that they will then qualify for separate recognition on the LGA’s boards and committees.

That’s something that even UKIP failed to do at the height of its popularity back in 2013/14.

In London, Labour’s primary target was to win additional councils rather than simply build on their record seat numbers from 2018. 

The party did take the iconic inner city, low council tax boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster, as well as Barnet where accusations of anti-semitism had proved harmful four years ago. 

But Labour was shocked to shed eight seats and control in Barnet’s north London neighbour Harrow and, perhaps less surprisingly, sacrificed its majority in financial scandal-hit Croydon too.

Politics in Tower Hamlets remains opaque perhaps even to its own residents. Here, the number of Labour seats halved as Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire party grabbed control of the council as well as the mayoralty for Mr Rahman himself.

It was in south London, though, that another key aspect of the wider election played out as the Conservatives returned their lowest number of councillors ever in the capital.

They were almost wiped out in Richmond upon Thames and collapsed in the Wimbledon wards within Merton, where it was the Liberal Democrats who stepped into the breach as they did in other suburban and rural parts of England.

Ed Davey’s party had a stunning victory in the new, unitary Somerset County Council, and wait in the wings to take control of Westmorland and Furness when that council goes ‘live’ in April 2023.

In both cases, these are areas where the party has a record of parliamentary success. 

With the electoral shackles of involvement in the post-2010 Cameron coalition finally thrown off, the Liberal Democrats look again to have become a repository for discontented former Conservatives.

Gosport, West Oxfordshire and Woking, all relatively affluent and recently solidly Conservative at constituency level, trended in a similar way.

To be fair, though, Labour did make its own mark in some southern towns and cities.

Two gains in Southampton in wards it had not won since 2016 were key to flipping the council straight over from the Conservatives.

It also won Crawley and, remarkably for the first time ever, Worthing. A borough which had no Labour representation at all for nearly half a century until 2018 now boasts a party majority of nine in a 37-seat chamber.

These cases all underscore a significant dilemma for the two major parties. 

The Conservatives are at risk of being caught in a pincer moment between Labour and the Liberal Democrats with each posing a threat in different parts of the country.

Labour, for its part, must marry its recovery in support among younger, highly educated urban voters with a renewal of its appeal in traditional heartland territory.

These areas of the midlands and north, now forever dubbed the ‘red wall’, delivered a patchy message in the local elections. 

Labour clearly bounced back from the drubbing it received at the last general election and the 2021 local elections, but often fell short of recovering even to 2018 levels.

Indeed, it recorded a net loss of seats overall in the metropolitan boroughs, including in Barnsley, Oldham, South Tyneside and Wirral.

It did gain Kirklees (centred on Huddersfield) as well as the Lancashire former mill town of Rossendale, but lost to the Liberal Democrats in Hull for the first time in a decade.

Labour had more clear-cut success in Wales, where the Conservatives failed to defend their high water mark from 2017 – losing more than four in ten of their seats.

In south Wales, Labour came close to winning a majority in both Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan for the first time since the Tony Blair-led party was an unstoppable force in 1995.

Labour also won back control in Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend after what seemed like the historical aberration of their loss five years ago.

But even in Wales, it could not escape cost free. Neath Port Talbot, consistently Labour in its various guises since 1973, saw a haemorrhaging of seats to Independents.

And it was Independents who frustrated the party in its fight back in the Welsh ‘red wall’ in the north east. In Denbighshire, for example, they filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the Conservatives in an area where they had made two gains from Labour at the 2019 General Election. 

Plaid Cymru had a curious election, but it is likely the party will willingly trade its small decline in seat numbers for control of three additional councils including Anglesey and, by the narrowest of margins, Carmarthenshire.

With the exception of Tower Hamlets, the various mayoral contests followed a predictable pattern.

Four of the seven winning candidates were elected by a clear majority on the first ballot, including Liberal Democrat Peter Taylor in Watford. The party was successful there in one of the first ever mayoral direct elections in May 2002 and has not looked like losing since.  There was a much tighter battle in the inaugural election in Croydon, where the Conservative Jason Perry narrowly prevailed over former Labour council leader Val Shawcross.

With a hung council and a potential debt crisis looming, he faces a torrid term of office.

And just as Croydon became the first place since 2015 to join the ranks of single local authority mayors, Bristol became the fourth council after Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent, and Torbay to vote to get rid of theirs. 

The future looks to lie more with the combined authority model, with incumbents often having access to bigger dedicated budgets and greater strategic oversight. 

Results summary 2022 England (compared to pre-election including councils without elections, local by-elections, defections and structural/boundary changes) and summary 2022 Wales (compared to pre-election including structural/boundary changes)

Results summary 2022 England Results summary 2022 Wales
Conservative
Seats -332
Councils -12
Conservative
Seats -86
Councils -1
Labour
Seats +25
Councils -2
Labour
Seats +66
Councils +1
Lib Dem
Seats +178
Councils +4
Lib Dem
Seats +10
Councils -
Green
Seats +79
Councils -
Green
Seats +7
Councils -
Plaid Cymru
Seats +9
Councils +3
Other
Seats +50
Councils +1
Other
Seats -6
Councils -2
No overall control
Seats -
Councils +9
No overall control
Seats -
Councils -1
Councils controlled (England) 2022Councillors (England) 2022Councils controlled (Wales) 2022
Councillors (Wales) 2022
Con
126
Con
6,756
Con
0
Con
111
Lab
78
Lab
5,206
Lab
8
Lab
528
Lib Dem
26
Lib Dem
2,540
Lib Dem
0
Lib Dem
69
No overall control
95
No overall control
9
Ind/ Other
6
Ind/ Other
1,880
Ind/ Other
1
Ind/Other
316
Plaid Cymru
4
Plaid Cymru
202
Green
529
Green
8

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