May is that moment in the calendar when the national media discover local politics. Add in this year the excitement of London elections when most political commentators get the chance to vote and you have a bubble of interest in what these elections mean for national politics and the outcome of the next General Election.
The blunt truth is that local elections have little bearing on either. This time last year the Labour Party was flattened with a huge loss of councillors across Shire England. One month later the same party were winning constituencies in exactly the same part of the country (much to the consternation of the Conservative MPs who were encouraged to campaign elsewhere).
But they do provide a snapshot of public opinion and confirmation of longer-term trends in politics which are worth consideration.
First up is that the Conservatives continue to lose support in London and major cities. One lesson for Labour to learn however is the art of managing expectations. It was certainly not a wise move to have the leader launch the local election campaign in Kensington & Chelsea. Apart from anything else it diverted attention from some spectacular results elsewhere in London. Previously marginal councils such as Enfield, Redbridge and Croydon moved out of reach of the Conservatives. In Tower Hamlets, Labour returned 43 out of 45 councillors and has hopefully moved on from the damaging politics of the last decade. Perhaps most notable was the party’s continuing success in Hammersmith & Fulham which was an unexpected gain in 2014. A focus on value for money, high quality services and a public concern for its numerous EU residents saw the Labour administration make even more gains, including the Conservative leader’s own seat. If I worked for Jeremy Corbyn, I might be making a call to Steve Cowan, the Labour leader there, on how to win votes from Conservatives.
However the Conservatives can take heart from the results outside the capital. In several towns such as Peterborough, Redditch, Dudley and Derby, the Conservatives made gains. More concerning for Labour is that this seems part of a longer-term loss of support in smaller towns and cities. While not impacting on overall control, Labour lost councillors in former heartland areas such as Wigan and Bolton. It may be related to these areas having a strong Leave vote and the transfer of former UKIP supporters (if they voted at all), but there are concerns that such areas don’t share the enthusiasm for Labour evidenced in the major cities.
With all sets of elections there will be outliers in terms of the overall results. It was evident that the publicity surrounding anti-semitism in the Labour Party cost the party control in Barnet (as well as the loss of seats in Salford and Bury). Less remarked was the impact of defence cuts on the Conservative losses in Plymouth – a slightly difference response to austerity.
The Liberal Democrats can be pleased with their results. Regaining control of Kingston and Richmond was a good result, winning South Cambridgeshire a bonus. It was notable that the party also did well in prosperous Remain-inclined, EU Citizen heavy areas such as Belsize Park (Camden) and Crouch End (Haringey). This aspect of politics is likely to get a further run in the pending Parliamentary by-election in Lewisham East (64% remain vote).
What is also remarkable is the change in political leadership in London. It looks likely that up to half the London leaders will be different from 2014. Expect to see new faces such as Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham, Rokshana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham, Niki Aiken, leader of Westminster, Gareth Roberts in Richmond and Georgia Gould in Camden making their mark.
So the 2018 local elections were not the watershed some predicted. Political control at the Local Government Association remains unchanged, although we will see a new Tory chairman as the much-respected Gary Porter is term limited. Local government has to come to terms with a new secretary of state in James Brokenshire (sic) so it looks like new faces all round. None of this of course changes the ongoing financial crisis. London councils face a ticking clock on a fading property market, which may undo many ambitious regeneration plans and all councils face the precipice of fully funded business rates by 2020.
So in the midst of all this gloom some light cheer. In the age of mighty political machines it is praiseworthy that an independent candidate stood out against the party tide. Malcom Grimston a former Tory candidate (and renowned expert on nuclear power) stood in West Hill Ward in Wandsworth and scored the highest individual result of the night (4002). Politics can still be local!
Paul Wheeler is founder of the Political Skills Forum