The May 2019 local elections in England were the first real opportunity since the delay to Brexit to measure voter opinion about the current political situation.
Much of the media portrayed the results as a “plague on both your houses”, implying that the two main parties had suffered equally. Remain supporters, meanwhile, were quick to point to the gains made by Liberal Democrats and Greens as evidence of a ‘swing’ to parties supporting a second EU referendum.
But what do the thousands of contests to elect councillors to 248 local authorities actually tell us? Freshwater’s public affairs team has analysed the results for the three main political parties to see what can be gleaned about the changing face of British politics.
A decline in votes for the Conservatives should not come as a huge surprise. In 2015, the last time the council seats were contested, they did very well, leaving them with a large number of seats to defend. As the party in power, and after nine years of government, a backlash was always to be expected. Local elections are often an opportunity for disgruntled voters to submit protest votes and, in this context, it would have been surprising if there hadn’t been a dip in the Tory vote.
The extent of their losses however, and where they took place, is significant. The Conservatives lost 1351 seats and gained only 82. Of the 138 shire districts and unitary authorities on which they had a majority before polling, a third fell into the hands of other parties or were left with no party in overall control.
A striking feature of the results, however, is the geographical variation. Most of the Tory gains were in the North, often at the expense of Labour in Brexit voting areas. Their losses were mainly in the South, to the benefit of Liberal Democrats.
Source: Twitter https://twitter.com/PME_Politics/status/1124262190058561539
The losses in the South will be due in part to the greater concentration of Tory councillors in the region. However, it does suggest that there are key voters in Conservative heartlands that are turning their backs on the party.
Take Chelmsford City Council. The Conservative party entered this round of local elections as the dominant party, with a 45-seat majority that had been enjoyed since 2003. This was slashed as they lost 31 seats, 26 of which were picked up by the Liberal Democrats who took control of the council for the first time since 1999. This apparently huge ‘swing’ to the Liberal Democrats was, however, due almost entirely to previous Conservative supporters not voting: an analysis of Chelmsford by Britain Elects statistician Simon Briscoe found the aggregate vote for Conservative candidates fell from 97,000 to 40,000, compared to an increase from 38,000 to 39,000 for the Liberal Democrats.
Nevertheless, losses like these sent a strong message to Tory HQ that many voters the party relied on in the towns and villages in the South and East of England are pushing back and won’t be taken for granted.
Losses for Labour
While the Labour Party suffered far fewer losses than the Conservatives, this set of local election results must have been a disappointment. If we should expect losses from the party that has been in government for a long period of time, then we should also expect the major opposition party to make gains.
The final tally for Labour was 244 gains compared to 307 losses, a net reduction of 63 seats. Labour won majorities on Calderdale and Trafford councils to take control of 27 of the 33 Metropolitan districts, but it lost control of the Wirral and seven shire districts and unitary authorities.
Again, geography was important: Labour’s losses came disproportionately from the North of England, many in traditional Labour heartlands, such as Redcar & Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, Darlington and Bolsover. Some point to the party’s Brexit position as a factor: Its attempt to bridge a gap between Leave and Remain voters appears to have harmed it more in strongly Brexit voting areas.
Liberal Democrats triumph?
With the two main parties having difficulty mobilising some of their core voters, the door was open for other parties to make gains.
The biggest beneficiary was the Lib Dems, who enjoyed a net gain of 676 seats and added 11 councils to the seven they already controlled. Their success was relative to the low point they had reached in 2015 after the losses that they had suffered since entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
Most of the Lib Dem victories came against the Conservatives in the South and East of England, restoring the party’s position in counties such as Somerset, Devon and Dorset where it traditionally had considerable support. Whether or not this result should be read as a protest vote on Brexit or simply a return to the status quo ante remains to be seen.
Brexit or local factors?
A dissatisfaction with how local government is working generally should also not be ruled out. Anyone involved in stakeholder engagement activity will tell you that local councils and councillors are traditionally ‘easy targets’ for the ire of citizens up and down the country.
After nine years of local government cuts imposed by Westminster, local councils have been forced to make more and more difficult and controversial decisions. Are parties being punished at the polls for unpopular moves such as councillors in Darlington enforcing over 500 £75 fines for littering to residents in the city centre or Sheffield’s controversial tree-felling scheme?
With Tory and Labour-held councils alike appearing to make decisions that voters simply do not like, we’ve seen a surge of support and some key victories for hyper-local independent candidates. More than 1,000 seats were won by candidates without any formal party affiliations, and the Greens made gains that took their representation in local government from 77 to 265 councillors.
Two parties conspicuous by their absence were the Brexit Party and Change UK, both so new that they were unable to register in time for this round of elections. Both parties will be fighting it out in the European elections later this month (23 May). And with the local election results suggesting dissatisfaction with the two main parties on Brexit, it will be another interesting milestone in UK politics.
For more political news, insight and analysis, follow the team at @FWPublicAffairs.