Not May’s Day: A very Liberal Local Election

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National view

Yesterday’s unfolding local election results painted a clear and immediate picture: Theresa May is fast running out of both time and popularity, and in the face of a languishing British democracy - the people have taken a serious second look at the alternative political options.

Among those options the Liberal Democrats have come out as clear victors, making modest but extremely significant gains. Amidst the now tired rhetoric of a squabbling Tory government and their equally divided Labour opposition, many new Independent and Green party seats have been secured, alongside the cascade of more than 703 new Liberal Democrat seats taking control of an additional 10 councils (total of 18).

Now that all 248 English councils holding elections have announced their full results, the Conservative party faired even worse than initially predicted - being down by 1,334 seats and having lost control of 44 local councils (they now control a total of 93 councils). The Tories blame their party’s performance on voter anger over Brexit, emphasising that they have retained council majorities and leaderships in many Brexit voting councils: typically areas with fewer graduate voters and an aging demographic.

Tory losses have been heaviest in southern England. Many Lib-Dem led councils in the South were ousted by Tory leadership following the 2015 Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. Now, as the Liberal Democrats reclaim their historic place as the party of protest and shirk the criticisms of Tory coalition, the Pavement Politics of the Lib-Dems has secured their best Local Election result since 2004. Labour also sees its downfall as the plight of Brexit: in its 9th year as opposition party Labour has lost a total of 82 seats losing reducing the number of councils they control from 66 to 60.

In line with the current strong environmental movement at the moment, the Green Party has added 194 councillors, and the strong protest vote is evident by the number of independent councillors rising by 612. It is also worth noting, that having made significant gains in 2015, UKIP lost 145 seats.

The noticeable shift towards Lib-Dem support in this historic local election has prompted commentary that their new found relevance and popularity is fuelled by their support for a people’s vote in the absence of any decisive action from the Tory’s or the Labour Party.

However, both Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have publicly responded to the election results, sending very similar messages regarding the frustration being demonstrated by the public: define and deliver the Brexit that was voted for. Although it may seem like Conservative and Labour Party decline in this local election could be used to leverage cross-party co-operation, and see Labour helping to deliver May’s Brexit, the picture is not yet clear.

The BBC’s lead election analyst Sir John Curtice has warned against conflating Lib-Dem popularity and the national outcry for a people’s vote: ‘when you actually look, is there any evidence that the Liberal Democrats are doing better in remain areas than in leave areas? The truth is that evidence seems to be lacking’’. It would therefore seem that the swing towards the Lib-Dems could be more than skin deep. Perhaps Brexit has been divisive and tumultuous enough to prompt a major shift in the landscape of English Local Politics and British Politics at large?

All in all the 2019 English local elections have shown that – in MP Sir Bernard Jenkins words – Theresa May has “Lost the Plot”, and that in the face of muddy British Politics the people of England are seriously considering less conventional options: Now is the chance for the Lib-Dems, the Independents and the Green Party to really make their mark as the British two-party system appears increasingly to be no longer fit for purpose.

Local insights

But what does this all mean when we look closer to home, at a local level?

Noticeably the Lib Dems have won leadership of Bath and North East Somerset County Council from the Conservative Party, gaining 23 new seats. Tim Warren, the previous Conservative leader of the Council commented that he knew this election would be ‘’bad, but not this bad’’, and that ‘’we couldn’t get [the voters] to differentiate between local politics and Brexit, and we got hammered for it’’. The Conservatives have lost 24 seats, leaving the Lib-Dems with a large majority.

In yet another story of Conservative defeat, Winchester County Council has been also taken by the Liberal Democrats. The previous Tory majority lost five crucial seats to the Lib-Dems, who have won back control of the authority for the first time since 2003. This is another story of Brexit frustration, with the Local Conservative Leader Caroline Horrill calling politicians nationally to ‘’come together and agree a deal’’.

Where Tory and Labour approaches to Brexit were overwhelming in a local arena, Lib-Dem Leader Lucille Thompson focused on the fact that these elections were not about Brexit but local services and local people. Given that Winchester voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum, this change of local leadership should not come as a surprise.

Other regional Councils gained by the Lib Dems include Cotswold, Somerset West, North Devon, and Taunton.

Swindon however has gone against national trends, strengthening its Conservative majority to five seats. Just one seat changed hands, the Labour ward of Penhill being won by the Conservatives. Many were surprised to see the Conservative control of Swindon CBC remain, let alone to see it bolstered. Many of the seats were closely fought, however, the Tories holding the ward of Old Town by just 15 votes.

Council leader David Renard seemed quietly confident prior to the vote, and will now be feeling extremely satisfied with his ability to stay the tide of Brexit rebellion in the form of both disenfranchised remainers and frustrated leavers.

In conclusion

Aside from the political uncertainty at a national level, large political shifts and uncertainty at a local level (there are now a total of 73 councils under no overall control) may present challenges over coming months for those working with local authorities, due to a significant change in key personalities as well as the potential for major shifts in policy. It will be crucial to understand these changes to local politics and key stakeholders (and  influencers), in conjunction with a need to reassess and potentially reposition communication and engagement strategies according to the new political landscape.

If you would like some assistance reviewing your political and communication strategy, then please get in touch: clare@grasshopper-comms.co.uk.