Mark Whitehead 18 April 2019

Council elections: A testing time for party alignments

Next month's local authority elections could hardly come at a more turbulent time. Traditional loyalties are likely to be eroded at an even faster rate than was already happening.

More than 8,000 local councillors in England are being elected to 248 councils, with the Conservatives fielding candidates in 96% of the available seats, while Labour are contesting 77%. The Liberal Democrats are standing prospective councillors in 53% of seats, the Green Party 30% and UKIP 16%. There will also be five directly elected council mayors and one combined authority mayor.

So the elections matter for communities all over the country. In their public statement, the Conservatives focus on cost-effectiveness. Tory-run authorities, it says, protect the services local people rely on while keeping council tax low: Bracknell Forest has made savings of £11.6m 'without cutting a single service' while Conservatives in Yorkshire's East Riding council have invested £16m in flood defences and Cheshire East has pledged an extra £7m for recycling.

How much this approach will appeal to voters will become apparent. What may make a much bigger impact is the current overriding national issue of fundamental importance to the future of the nation: Brexit.

The prime minister has reportedly been warned that the Conservatives are on course to lose control of some councils in the wake of rising anger. Conservative-led authorities in strongly Brexit-supporting areas could see their majorities disappear.

Labour seems less susceptible to negative reactions over the EU question and is sticking to its guns by focusing is on the quality of services. In Jeremy Corbyn's Islington stamping ground, the local party is promising to deliver 1,900 new 'genuinely affordable homes' by 2022, and crack down on rogue private landlords. Pledges also include helping 4,000 local people into work and guaranteeing support for young people to get high-quality apprenticeships.

Labour councillors will protect vital frontline services, the party's statement says, 'despite massive ongoing Tory Government cuts, ensuring all libraries, children’s centres and Council youth centres remain open, as well as maintaining weekly bin collections and support services for older people.'

On the south coast in Brighton and Hove Labour promises to make the area carbon neutral by 2030, 'work towards' eliminating the need for rough sleeping and provide a minimum of 800 new council homes.

Further, a Labour-run council would independently audit all outsourced services and 'bring services in-house if it will achieve a higher level of social value' it claims.

The Liberal Democrats say they want to focus on local issues. Party leader Vince Cable claimed recently: 'The talk is of parking schemes, by-passes, bins, and open spaces rather than back-stops, customs unions, and regulatory convergence.'

But as the only one of the three main parties squarely committed to staying in the EU, the Lib Dems are clearly aware they stand to gain support from anti-Brexit voters.

The Green Party is presenting itself as a radical alternative to the status quo. It promises to 'unleash the power of local to protect and revive our communities, after years of neglect and decline.'

Surprisingly, it focuses on restoring services rather than environmental issues. The Government’s 'ideological commitment to austerity', it says, has closed libraries, forced councils to sell public land and laid off the council staff that collect litter, repair roads and care for older people.

But a vote for the Green Party in May is 'a vote against such outdated, disastrously imposed establishment thinking. It is a vote for a new, fresh approach' which will include campaigning to restore the £50b of public money taken from councils.

At a local level, it says: 'Having Greens on your council means having champions for investment in local services, fighting to improve public spaces, increase access to social housing and to provide more walking, cycling and public transport opportunities.'

Meanwhile UKIP unashamedly sees the local elections as an opportunity for people to register their feelings about Brexit. It claims to have almost trebled its candidates to more than 500.

But without its former charismatic leader Nigel Farage – whose Brexit Party is not putting forward candidates – it is hard to see what impact UKIP will make other than as a protest vote. The elections will be, in the words of their current leader Gerard Batten: 'The next opportunity for the British people to punish the political establishment for their Brexit betrayal.'

Thanks to the ongoing row over Brexit, party alignments are being tested in these elections as never before. As a result of the cataclysmic national rethink now taking place, the political landscape at local level could look very different once the local elections are over.

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