Can mayoral polls help Tories buck their losing trend?

Jonathan Werran picks out the highlights from the local and mayoral poll results so far, and he argues the case for a more stable set of electoral cycles.

The first rule in commenting on local elections is to declare that they should not be treated as ‘glorified national opinion polls'.  So, in pointing out that the disastrous showing, the worst local performance in four decades, portends a seismic shellacking for the Conservative party at the next General Election, we can safely move on to discuss the early results on their own terms.

This is an election of two halves with the 11 mayoral authorities in contests which cover just under half the population of England playing out at the same time as 107 local authority elections across unitaries and districts.

Given these elections were last held in 2021 when a Boris Johnson led government was enjoying a ‘covid bounce' and something of a high-water mark on the back of the vaccination programme (also note that local elections in 2020 – including the mayoral ones - were postponed owing to the pandemic), expectation management is out of the window.  The best forecast is that the Conservatives will lose around 500 councillors, virtually one in every two seats, with the Labour councillor intake set to increase by 300 and gains aplenty expected for the Lib Dems and the Greens for whom Bristol City Council is a target.

Of early Conservative losses, perhaps Rushmoor DC in Hampshire, home of the British Army in Aldershot, is as notable as the fall of true blue bastion Bracknell Forest last year – an improbable loss which betokens a deepening of the southern discomfort scenario and a changing of the guard across south east councils.  On the Eastern front, the fall of Thurrock from minority to Labour control is more of a local government morality tale following the commercial disaster of the solar farm.  However, elsewhere in Essex, the defiant rearguard retention of Harlow on a traditional Conservative local approach to freezing council tax might not have been in Robert Halfon's words ‘the greatest comeback since Lazarus' but shows evidence of life.

Further up the eastern shelf, there was the loss of North East Lincolnshire, a high-performing council and master of the ‘art of pragmatism' in its relations with central government, to no overall control.

Labour early successes in Hartlepool and Redditch point to a good set of results to further entrench political control of the Local Government Association – although the loss of Oldham to no overall control is a clear indicator that international as much as national factors can't be underestimated.

We will have to wait until over the weekend for most of the mayoral elections to be called.  Given the personal, winner takes all, nature of the mayoral elections, most attention focused on the win today of Lord Houchen in Tees Valley, and will switch tomorrow to the outcome for fellow Conservative poster boy of devolution Andy Street in the West Midlands.  

The North of Tyne contest between incumbent but excommunicated Jamie Driscoll running as an independent and Labour candidate Kim McGuinness will similarly be well worth noting for those interested in whether metro mayors as charismatic leaders of place can outstrip party political affiliation.  and the first North Yorkshire mayoral poll.  The tendency has been for the Conservatives to lose many of the first opportunities arising from devolution deals or unitarisations and it will be interesting to see if trends can be bucked amid mostly dismal outcomes. But notably in the inaugural East Midlands Mayoral elections where Ben Bradley as both constituency MP for Mansfield and leader of Nottinghamshire CC was seeking to add a third crown, he has lost out today to Labour's Claire Ward.

As has been observed by commentators in the run up to the elections, we vote metro mayors for the exercise of devolutionary matters on infrastructure and region wide economy while for councils on public services and the immediate local economy.  Responsibility for certain aspects, notably planning and housing, and taking the blame or credit for them, have in some cases been, shall we say, blurred to the point of contestation.  There's a need to better educate voters on the basics of local civics as well as reforming regional and local relations as much as we have been fixated on central/local relations.

When Localis last reflected on this, in our report ‘Hitting Reset' on how to rebalance central and local we argued that the local electoral cycle should be aligned to a five-year funding cycle. A more stable set of electoral cycles would, we argued, help end the problem of short-termism in policymaking at both a local and national level.

Ending the system of voting by thirds and halves and running all local elections as a single election campaign would, we have argued give greater media attention to local government issues and increase public awareness - and hopefully turnout.

So, in this context, the continuing practice of voting by thirds and the lengthy annual paralysis at local level this voting arrangement engenders, does little to advance place leadership or local democracy. For council opposition parties it's a useful stratagem to maintain voting by thirds so as to keep the ball in play every year.  Ultimately, that's not a strong enough justification. It's time we called time on thirds and switched to all out everywhere.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis


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