“Labour did particularly well in areas where radical change was on the agenda. Preston council has done an outstanding job of ensuring that funding is attracted to and retained within the city through its community wealth building approach.”
Mike Phipps analyses the local election results
“We’re fed up with everything!” was one voter’s verdict which perhaps summed up May 4th’s local election results. The governing Conservative Party was decisively rejected, not just over its handling of the economy, its running down of public services, especially the NHS, and its allowing water companies to pump unlimited quantities of sewage into Britain’s rivers, but also over its divisive agenda on immigration and human rights.
Voters across England voted for local councillors on Thursday May 4th. In total, over 8,000 seats were up for election across 230 councils. The Tories said in advance they could lose as many as 1,000 council seats. They lost more.
Seven opinion polls were published with fieldwork conducted in the last week of April. On average, Labour had a 16 point lead over the Tories in those surveys. However, back in 2019 – the last time the same seats were up for election – Labour had a five point lead over the Tories, but actually lost seats. This time the results were clearer.
The election was undoubtedly a referendum on the Tories’ governmental performance over the last 12 months. Turnout was low, a reflection of two things: firstly, the fact that austerity since 2010 means councils can do little more than crisis management. Over the last decade, over £100 billion has been cut by central government from local government budgets. In the decade since 2010, 750 youth centres closed, 3,000 bus routes have been cut, 800 libraries have shut.
A second factor affecting turnout was the new law requiring voters to have photographic identification. There was a lot anecdotal evidence that many voters without the right ID – and even some with – were turned away from polling stations. Some reports suggested the number of voters turned away was as high as 25%, although no official tally was kept.
Voter ID has never been a problem in Britain – convictions for voter fraud by individual voters is very rare – so the new rules look like a form of voter suppression, aimed at particularly hitting poorer and younger people. For example, a pensioners’ bus pass is a legitimate form of ID, but not a Young Person’s railcard. Would it be churlish to point out that older people are more likely to vote Conservative? Unlock Democracy said the efforts to introduce the scheme “went very badly”. Shamefully, Labour has no plans to repeal this iniquitous and partisan piece of legislation.
An estimated one in six councils risk running out of money in 2023. Effectively going bankrupt in 2021 was the key reason Labour lost Slough council this time around. But in other respects, it was a night of Labour triumph. The Party gained over 500 seats and 19 councils in total, many in areas that will be crucial battlegrounds in a future general election, including Swindon, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent, and East Staffordshire.
There were some spectacular results for Labour, which is now the largest party in local government. It took Dover for the first time since 1995 and Medway for the first time since its creation. Nottingham now has no Conservative councillors at all for the first time ever.
The Tories should be worried. They faced considerable erosion in the south – for example, losing East Hertfordshire and Hertsmere – where the demographics are changing as more lower income people are forced out of London by high rents and property prices, and where existing more socially liberal voters are turned off by Tory authoritarianism. Even in Kent, where the Tories’ focus on ‘stopping the boats’ might have been expected to shore up their fortunes, they did poorly, with Labour gaining Thanet and Dover. Some of the Labour councillors elected were also high-profile supporters of refugee rights, such as Bridget Chapman in Folkestone.
Labour did particularly well in areas where radical change was on the agenda. Preston council has done an outstanding job of ensuring that funding is attracted to and retained within the city through its community wealth building approach. It was rewarded at the polls by an increased majority. Labour campaigns which took a similar line tended to do well, as in Worthing and Broxtowe, a Labour gain. All credit to Labour Councillor Greg Marshall, who was blocked by the Party leadership from being selected for the parliamentary constituency, for sticking with his Party there and contributing to this key victory.
Former Shadow Chancellor and veteran Labour MP John McDonnell hailed the results as a clear anti-Tory vote, but added; “What the elections haven’t confirmed yet is that there is an equally strong, motivated support for Labour. Hence the diversion of a sizeable element of the anti-Tory vote to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the spectrum of independent candidates.”
The Lib Dems won over 400 seats and took control of 12 councils, mostly in Tory heartlands. The Greens also did well, winning rural Mid-Suffolk, their first ever majority council, with 24 out of 34 seats. Overall, they gained 241 more seats, doubling their total number of councillors to 481.
The results also provided a warning to some in Labour’s leadership who seem intent on pursuing a factional war against the left at the expense of winning: some of those deselected by Party officials and who ran as independents won re-election, including former Portsmouth leader Cal Corkery and three Liverpool anti-cuts councillors, including Alan Gibbons who romped home with 77% of the vote. And there was a warning too from Leicester where the NEC blocked 19 sitting Labour councillors, mainly BAME, from re-standing. Labour haemorrhaged support, losing 22 councillors, with the Tories gaining 17.
We should be cautious about extrapolating too much from this election, which was exclusively in England and where a large number of independents were running. But if these results were replicated at a general election – still potentially over 18 months away – Labour would emerge the largest party in a House of Commons with no overall majority. The prospect of this could make the leader’s personality and judgment a key issue at the next general election.
That might worry Keir Starmer. Current polls suggest that among Labour voters 48% are satisfied with his performance versus 45% dissatisfied. Compare this to Rishi Sunak, whose scores are 75% and 15% respectively among Tory voters.
Some analysts see parallels with the 1992 general election which Labour narrowly lost under Neil Kinnock. The scale of Labour’s task, suggests one recent analysis, “is arguably even bigger than the one Kinnock faced in 1992. Without a major revival in Scotland, experts calculate that the party will need a swing of up to 13 per cent in England to govern with a majority. It means that if Labour edge towards Hung Parliament territory, the ‘question of trust’ on Starmer’s deals with the SNP and the Lib Dems will become the dominant political narrative.”
Labour can take comfort that it did particularly well among non-graduate voters. The ‘red wall’ may be returning to the Labour fold. But the Party leadership also needs to worry that its authoritarian streak could alienate more liberal-minded graduates, among whom Labour did well in 2017, and who may now be looking elsewhere. Keir Starmer’s announcement a few days before the polls that he was dropping his pledge to get rid of university tuition fees, without announcing any alternative, won’t have helped win that cohort over.
In short, Labour still has a hill to climb to win a governing majority at a general election next year. The clear takeaway from these results is that a radical, optimistic message, clearly differentiating the Party from the Tories in policy terms – not just competence – is the way forward.