Local elections often don’t capture the political imagination. Expectations are managed and met, spokespeople proclaim that there are nuanced or local factors at play to explain results, and then we return to the Westminster bubble.
While some of this may be true in the 2019 local elections, the timing of the election and its scale – some 8,000 councillors – means it will have a lasting impact on our councils, political parties and Westminster.
Big problems for the bigger parties?
Commentators expected Theresa May’s Conservative Party to take a beating in these local elections. Expert predictions had ranged anywhere from losing 400 to 800 councillors, with some party spokespeople suggesting it could be close to 1,000. It looks as if these fears will be met with Conservatives continuing to suffer heavy losses in district shires across England.
While council election losses are expected for a governing party, the scale of the results will be difficult to take. The Conservative Party has been incredibly resilient in local elections since joining government in 2010 and it has given them a guaranteed activist base in seats they hold or are targeting.
Governments must eventually succumb to political gravity, but this a further blow to Theresa May and her chances of remaining in Downing Street even in the short term. Many defeated councillors and council leaders have already highlighted the government’s failure to deliver Brexit as a reason for the scale of losses, claiming it meant voters could no longer trust the party. Others simply appeared exasperated and wanted Brexit to be over. The combination of the poor results and candidates blaming the government’s handling of Brexit will embolden May’s critics as she seeks to cut a deal with the Labour Party.
Amongst this set of results there was some good news for the Conservative Party. There is a trend of the party performing well in northern and midlands authorities that were heartlands for Labour. The councils it has performed well in are made up of small towns with socially conservative and pro-Brexit voters while Labour appeals to urban and graduate voters. So far it has gained in North East Lincolnshire, Walsall, North East Derbyshire and held key authorities bell weather like Swindon. This election confirmed the trend started in the 2017 local and general elections of strong support in new territory for the party, even at the expense of more liberal voters, and gives an indication of the future route to success for the Conservative Party that leadership candidates may consider. The road to a majority may be through seats like Mansfield, Ashfield and Newcastle Under Lyme over Bath and Chelmsford.
The Labour Party’s night has been more muted. Initial predictions had Jeremy Corbyn’s party gaining around 200 councillors. So far though the party has lost 100 seats and been humbled by an independent candidate in the Middlesbrough mayoral election. The party will point to an increased majority on Plymouth Council and taking control of Trafford and Amber Valley as examples of its incremental gains, but this is the second set of local elections in which the party has flattered to deceive.
While some Labour MPs have been quick to blame the party’s Brexit stance, suggesting that by trying to please everyone the leadership are pleasing no one, but there might be other electoral challenges for Labour. Lisa Nandy MP (Labour, Wigan) has highlighted the party continues to struggle in small towns while it is piling votes up in urban centres. There are only so many votes in cities and among graduates that the party can capitalise on before it reaches a ceiling, and what may worry Labour more is that it actively sought to tackle this problem in the 2019 cycle. The party had tried to connect its radical message to the neglect that many of these towns and communities felt, with all its party-political broadcasts focused on this. It has little to show for this work, with it going backwards in areas like Bolsover, Bolton and Derby suggesting this problem has become entrenched and will actively hamper the party as it seeks to form a majority.
A yellow wave?
The big winners of the 2019 election are undoubtedly the Liberal Democrats. What started as a positive evening by gaining Bath and North East Somerset grew to a great set of results, taking councils that few predicted like the Vale of White Horse, The Cotswolds, North Devon and even Chelmsford. As it stands currently, the party has gained over 500 councillors in the best set of local election result for the party ever. The Greens too have made considerable advances, making gains on a range of councils it previously had no representation on.
Some commentators credit Vince Cable’s party’s clear stance on Brexit, in stark contrast to Labour position. While this may have helped in some authorities such as remain supporting Bath and Winchester, it less effectively explains gains in North Devon and Chelmsford or the small numbers of councillors it has gained across local authorities. Perhaps more convincingly, the Liberal Democrats have re-established themselves, at least in the short term, as a vehicle for protest at local and national politics.
Say it quietly, but the Liberal Democrats brand might no longer be tainted by coalition. Many of the local authorities it has gained or made good progress in are the types of areas the party would look to target in a general election as it seeks to reassert itself as a force in British politics. Despite the strong performance in these local elections, Liberal Democrats and commentators alike must remember that these results only return the party to roughly where it was before the 2015 general election when it faced wipeout.
There is only so much we can read from one cycle of local elections. These results may be radically different in three weeks with two new parties seeking to make their mark. Yet one thing the 2019 local elections have taught us is that both Labour and the Conservatives have significant electoral challenges they must face up to if they are to win a majority in the next general election.