Sweet oblivion

The election results should give greater purchase for pushing through Rachel Reeves' take on industrial strategy and addressing the continued national productivity failure, says Jonathan Werran.

If, according to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, when he was master of the U.S. Senate, the first rule of politics is to learn to count, the second rule that must follow is to give meaning to the vote.

In the context of managing bleak expectations, the woeful Conservative performance succeeded in breaking an already low bar before attempting a limbo dance beneath the fresh splinters.   According to the Financial Times' Stephen Bush, the Downing Street line on the local elections was ‘like a dentist telling you that the successful outcome to your root canal is death'.

As forecast as worst case, the Conservatives lost 474 councillors, virtually one in every two seats held.  They retained control of six of the councils - Broxbourne, Solihull, Walsall, Epping Forest, Fareham and after a rearguard action deemed by Robert Halfon MP as ‘the greatest comeback since Lazarus', Harlow in Essex was saved.

Elsewhere, however, there were few resurrection acts on a field of political oblivion.  Of early Conservative losses, Rushmoor DC in Hampshire, home of the British Army in Aldershot, was as notable a loss the fall of true blue bastion in Bracknell Forest last year's local polls.  A seemingly improbable loss which, like Adur DC in West Sussex falling to Labour after more than two decades of Conservative control betokens a deepening of the southern discomfort scenario and a changing of the guard across south east councils.  Similarly the gain of Dorset by the Liberal Democrats signals a change in the greater south west and the loss of bellwether Nuneaton and Bedworth to Labour indicates a changing of the guard in the midlands.

If this is the true nadir of Conservative local fortunes, it will still take more than a few political cycles to replenish their councillor foot-soldier ranks.  When it comes to the higher officer ranks of the metro mayoralties, the sole retention by a blue rosette averse Lord Houchen of Tees Valley Combined Authority, made it an abysmal ne for twelve.  The cruel knife margin that denied Andy Street his third term as West Midlands Combined Authority mayor provided the last drama but also the most poignant given his gracious demeanour and evident passion for public duty.  The tendency for the Conservatives to fail to win the first opportunities arising from devolution deals or unitarizations their national government had set in train continued with the inaugural East Midland and North Yorkshire mayoral votes.

The results take us back to square one from then chancellor George Osborne's original decision to champion the metro mayoral model during the Coalition years.  In addition to galvanising regional economic growth, this was also a political means through the ‘Northern Lights' strategy of rebuilding Conservative fortunes in urban areas of the north and midlands where they had been shut out since the Thatcher years.

So, on the basis that the local choices expressed in the May 2024 polls point the way to a forthcoming change in national government, the question of how central and regional relations will play out in the course of the next parliament assumes greater importance.

On the face of it there should be greater coherence between a national Labour government and a virtual clean sweep of Labour combined authority mayors, pushing through devolved matters of economy, infrastructure, skills and transport in lock step.  This should certainly allow for the greater purchase for pushing through Rachel Reeves take on industrial strategy and attempts to plug the vampiric issue which remains our continued national productivity failure.

However, it was telling how in their acceptance speeches metro mayors, among them Greater Manchester's Andy Burnham assuming his third term, pledged to put serving place first above all else.  This dynamic might well serve up tensions, creative or otherwise, in future spending reviews and national infrastructure choices in the course of the next parliament.  As is often the case where there isn't a coherent national opposition, intra party disputes as in the Blair/Brown years become the story.  Adding a regional layer of interest to this would be simply a reflection of our political economy.

Recognising the inherent tensions but making best and most productive use of the collective power of mayors in a meaningful way, unlike Lord Cameron's one time only ‘Cabinet of Mayors' assembly, has to be to the fore.  In terms of how this might be laid out, we'd be well advised to dust off Gordon Brown's ‘New Britain' vision of constitutional reform for an understanding of direction.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis



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