There may be trouble ahead

By Paul Wheeler | 19 May 2021
  • Paul Wheeler

Now that the dust has settled and the spinners have spun, what really happened on 6 May?

As duly predicted by me, the Tories did well and Labour did badly. The numbers, rather than any briefings, speak for themselves.

Labour lost 326 councillors and control of eight councils (including key battlegrounds in Plymouth and Southampton) whereas the Tories gained 235 councillors and 13 councils.

These results were even more impressive for the Tories given it has been the Government for the last decade. Labour was fighting on a previously poor set of results from 2017 especially in the Shire counties and would have expected to do better this time.

As well as the implications for local government there are considerable political consequences.

Local councillors are frequently the political and financial backbone of many local parties. Labour can ill afford to lose rising stars such as leader of Oldham Sean Fielding and experienced operators such as Alan Rhodes and Sue Woodward – their leaders in Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire respectively.

Clearly, there was a vaccine and furlough bounce in the results (which also helped the incumbent Governments in Wales and Scotland) but the outcome does indicate a deeper shift in much of Shire England especially in the North and the Midlands. Just as the 2019 General Election saw many traditional working class constituencies vote Conservative for the first time, the 2021 local elections saw many traditional Labour towns do the same.

County Durham, Labour since 1919, was lost to No Overall Control and Rotherham went from having no Conservative councillors to a group of 20. For those with long memories there is considerable irony in Clay Cross (home of a famous rent strike led by its local council in the 1970s) electing a Conservative councillor for Derbyshire CC.

Some of the rationale – a Conservative council is likely to receive more funding from a Conservative Government – confirms the increasingly transactional nature of modern politics.

In the main, Labour’s hold on the northern conurbations was maintained with the welcome gain of the newly-created West Yorkshire Mayor and retaining the mayoral role in troubled Liverpool.

However, results in Greater Manchester show some of the dilemmas for the party. These include a comfortable victory for Andy Burnham as mayor and gaining seats in prosperous Trafford, but losing them in the more working class north of the conurbation – with the Tories gaining control of Bolton and losses to independents in Bury and Oldham.

Lancashire also saw gains for the Conservatives in marginal districts such as Rossendale.

The Midlands were also a happy hunting ground for the Conservatives, with a significant victory for Andy Street as West Midlands mayor. This was part of a major shift to the Conservatives across the region with the party gaining the Police and Crime Commissioner roles in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and neighbouring Humberside.

In an intriguing development, the MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, has also become the leader of Nottinghamshire CC – a combined role more common in France than Shire England.

There were other developments on the night. There were signs emerging of trouble in the ‘southern Blue Wall’ for the Government, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats gaining support in counties such as Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire as well as Labour winning the mayoralties in Cambridgeshire/Peterborough and the West of England.

As a sign of the times, Labour emerged with 15 seats on Worthing BC in West Sussex. There clearly are cracks emerging but these are long-term in their national political implications.

Moreover, the mayoral successes were the results of preference voting which the Tory Government have pledged to abolish for future elections!

One interesting new development was the success of the Green Party in attracting support in major cities such as Bristol and Sheffield and causing Labour administrations in both to fall.

Overall, the Green Party gained 88 councillors (in comparison the Liberal Democrats gained eight). If this trend continues it may have big implications for the London borough elections in May 2022.

For now, the Tories can celebrate, but there are potential problems ahead. The recent Queen’s Speech indicated the Government intends a much more vigorous market approach to planning applications which will lead to trouble in the district councils and concern among their MPs.

Moreover, as the number of Tory councils grow in the North and the Midlands the cost of ‘levelling up’ and promised regeneration in many towns will mount up and an element of ‘buyer’s remorse’ may start to emerge.

But there is no doubt that the tectonic plates of politics have shifted decisively in Shire England and possibly permanently

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics


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