Paul Wheeler 24 May 2011

Local winners… and losers

Local winners… and losers image

With the political focus shifting to the 2012 elections, voters have left all the main political parties to absorb some important lessons, says Paul Wheeler

For advocates of local democracy, we should all be grateful to the citizens of Scotland.

For years, we have argued that elections should be determined on local issues and not seen as national judgments on central government. And that’s what happened in Scotland on 5 May, to the consternation of the Labour Party campaigners there.

So, what else happened in the local elections this year?

For the Liberal Democrats, while there were some crumbs of comfort in councils such as Portsmouth and Bath, it was a crushing defeat.

Throughout the North, they saw dozens of long-standing councillors lose their seats, and lost control of almost all their councils including Newcastle, Sheffield and Redcar to Labour.

Some of the losses were spectacular, including the defeat of Mike Storey in Liverpool after a 30-year record of public service, and the loss of all councillors up for election in Manchester and Chesterfield.

Perhaps, just as serious, was the loss of dozens of seats in the South to Conservatives, such as in North Norfolk – the constituency of Norman Lamb – PPS to deputy PM Nick Clegg – where the Liberal Democrats lost 11 seats and control of the council to the Conservatives.

Such results – which on present trends are likely to be repeated in next year’s local elections, including local councils in Wales – are likely to create severe tensions within the Liberal Democrats and lead to an uncomfortable weekend for Mr Clegg at the party’s local government conference in Bristol next month.

Labour can take some comfort from the results, with more than 800 gains from both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives and winning key councils such as York, Blackpool, Newcastle, Oldham, Sheffield and Warrington.

Winning Bury MBC on the drawing of lots after a tied result in what was a safe Conservative ward was a particular highlight. Just as important is the emergence of new and confident local leaders after years of loss and retrenchment.

Capable leaders such as Jim McMahon in Oldham, James Alexander in York, Simon Blackburn in Blackpool, Julie Dore in Sheffield and Nick Forbes in Newcastle will add much to the debate on the future of Labour local government.

However, party strategists will be worried about the party’s failure to make more progress in the South and shire England. There were notable exceptions, with good wins in Ipswich, Gravesham and Lincoln, but the failure to take key councils such as Dover, Redditch, Medway and Reading from the Conservatives and their over-hauling by the Green Party in Brighton and Hove are real causes for concern.

This is more work in progress than a convincing endorsement of the new party leadership.

The party which can perhaps take most comfort from the local election is the Conservative. Going into the elections fearing losses the Tories actually made gains and took control of a number of councils, including Gloucester, Lewes, West Somerset and West Devon.

However, most of their gains were at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, which will not help the delicate negotiations and compromises needed to keep the coalition functioning at a national level until 2015.

The overwhelming rejection of the Alternative Vote in the referendum after an energetic Conservative campaign will only add to the sense of anger among Liberal Democrat activists.

So, what are the implications for the local election results? We may well be seeing the return of two party politics at a local level in England, regardless of what happens nationally.

The Liberal Democrats have been able to build up a solid base of councillors by opposing Labour in the North and the Conservatives in the South. Now that solid base – which is the core of their party activists – appears to be under threat, and has serious repercussions for their ability to campaign in future local elections and the next general election.

For local government, perhaps the honest answer is that we cannot read too much into one set of results. There is clearly anger at the coalition government’s cuts to local government, but this seems to be confined to metropolitan areas and directed more at the Liberal Democrats junior partners rather than the Conservatives.

Indeed, the Conservatives played a canny game by ‘pausing’ the NHS reforms for the duration of the local election campaign and neutralising the electorate’s strongest concern. For 2012, all eyes will turn to London, with the intriguing combination of personality contest and political struggle between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone for London mayor.

Combined with the referenda on elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities and the election of police commissioners throughout England – the return of the Sheriff of Nottingham? – next year will certainly see a range of fascinating electoral contests at the local level.

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum

It’s now or never for modern democracy image

It’s now or never for modern democracy

The electoral landscape is now ‘more crowded than ever’, while council resources have been ground down, says Laura Lock – and she warns that professionals do not have limitless capacity.
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