Cratus special report: local elections 2019

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Cratus Deputy Chairman, Chris Roberts, on what last week's results mean for Labour

The local elections last week are open to wide interpretation. As a company that believes “our world is local” and as practitioners in local government, we have a healthy scepticism for those who seek to draw national lessons from a set of council elections where local factors, often unseen to the national observer, are absent from the analysis.

In addition, a large proportion of councils were at limited risk of changing hands, electing only a third of councillors.

To take one example. Is the fact that Labour in Manchester lost a seat to the Liberal Democrats an issue of any importance other than to those directly involved? What impact does Labour's loss in Manchester have? Labour is now down from 94 seats to 93, while the Liberal Democrats are up from 2 to 3. And that's it. There are no other parties represented on the council.

So, does reporting a Labour loss in Manchester help any interpretation of what happened? And what happened in Manchester was repeated in virtually all the major cities. It would not be difficult to ascribe Labour's total net losses to small numbers of 1, 2 or 3 lost in this manner, while the party retained rock solid control of the council.

The early narrative has been that last Thursday was a message to “get on with Brexit”. More considered analysis is likely to see this challenged. Most Tory seats were lost to the Liberal Democrats, the most overtly Remain option that voters could choose last Thursday. Labour's losses in its heartlands paint a more conflicting message. In heavily Brexit voting Sunderland, UKIP won a seat from Labour with an 18% increase in their share of the vote. But in other wards the Liberal Democrats won Labour seats, increasing their vote by 43% and in one case, by 53%. In the latter ward, the UKIP vote fell 11.5%. Hardly a Brexit protest.

And if Labour was suffering for its attempt to sit on the Brexit fence, how does that explain its direct gain of seats, straight from the Conservatives in Brexit Basildon?

The pattern of elections was, as always, more complex and more locally driven. No doubt Brexit played some part, but it is not the straightforward “get on with Brexit” that the early media and pro-Brexit analysts would infer. We can detect that where a strong local vision was put forward, voters responded. Basildon's Labour manifesto might be a case in point.

Elsewhere, those councils which had sought to explain potential development changes seemed to do well. Those who pushed the envelope somewhat, did not.

What we can discern from some of these apparently conflicting results, is that a clear vision and positive engagement about change and development in an area paid off for those councils and candidates last week. The need to engage with the public and take the time to explain change seems ever more paramount, as trust in national politicians erodes.

Notwithstanding the fact that “our world is local” and warning against a national analysis, I have been asked to suggest what this might be, from a Labour perspective.

So, here goes.

Labour has little to worry about the Brexit mess. Its ambiguity is not hindering the party too much. There are examples of where Labour did take a bad hit (Bolsover, Hartlepool etc) but in an election for 248 councils, Labour had perhaps 10 really bad results.

Moreover, in many of those areas, Labour lost to a wide range of Independent candidates and a few Liberal Democrats in cities where the party's majority on the council would embarrass a Middle Eastern dictator. It is difficult to see the council elections last Thursday translating into a loss of parliamentary seats at a general election.

By contrast, Conservative seats and councils fell, overwhelmingly, to the Liberal Democrats. Bath, Chelmsford and Guildford, to name only three from a long list, are all areas where the Liberal Democrats not only have historic bases but where they held the parliamentary seats when the Conservatives last collapsed into opposition.

I have no doubt that Corbyn and his strategists, while not ecstatic about the results, will be quietly content. From these results, I think they will calculate they can hold most of their heartlands in a general election, while the chaos in Westminster over Brexit is lifting the Liberal Democrats back into contention in the south of England.

Many of these places were the strongest Remain voting areas in the country. 'Getting on with Brexit' does not necessarily translate into a Tory recovery in those parts of the South where voters wanted to Remain. It may well lead to a subsequent parliamentary shift to the Liberal Democrats in some of these areas. Given the next Conservative leader is likely to be pro-Brexit, are these Remain voting areas simply going to return to the Conservative fold next time?

It follows from this that Labour may well see advantage in making all the right noises about doing a Brexit deal with Theresa May but somehow finding themselves unable to do so. And Tory MPs have already written Labour's excuse.

The Prime Minister 'doesn't listen', is 'inflexible' and 'won't budge'. You don't have to believe Corbyn when he eventually says this. Scores of backbench Tory MPs have already written that narrative for him.

An analysis published the day after the elections, produced a projected loss of around 35 MPs for the Conservatives. Labour remained almost unchanged from 2017. This was cited as evidence that Labour as an opposition party was not doing anywhere near well enough to win a general election.

In normal times, this would be correct. But these are not normal times. The Conservatives are imploding and potentially misreading the message from this set of local elections, where Remain voting areas swung back towards the Liberal Democrats for the first time since a youthful David Cameron appeared on the scene.

The fact is, for as long as this chaos remains, all Labour has to do is hold its 2017 base. Labour lost Scotland after the departure of Tony Blair and while that is frustrating for the party, the leadership knows that after the next election there will be around 50 Scottish MPs, regardless of the banner they were elected under, who will walk through the Labour lobby and never through the Conservative one. In addition, the Liberal Democrats are led by a man who opposed the Coalition in 2010 and whose likely successor sits for a seat in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats are not aligning themselves with the Conservative Party anytime soon.

Labour knows that Corbyn has extremely limited appeal beyond his base. That has always made it difficult to believe he could capture the centre-ground and win a general election. But if there's one thing Corbyn shares with Margaret Thatcher, it is a disdain for the centre ground (and the EU, we might add).

However, he does not need to win the centre. All he needs to do is hold his 2017 base, watch the chaos of 'Tory Brexit' erode parts of the Remain voting Conservative base in the south of England. He does not even need those seats to go Labour. All he needs is the Tory vote to erode below a level where the Conservatives can be sustained in office by the DUP.

After last week, it may be timely to remind ourselves of that old political maxim: “Oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them.”

Essex – Have the Conservatives just missed a step and can they recover?

Now that we've allowed the dust to settle following what seemed like a political avalanche that were last week's Local Elections, it's time to take a step back and reflect on the results. In Essex, the Conservatives lost 5 out of 14 councils*. This seems bad enough for them as it is. However, dig a little deeper and a much more concerning issue for the Conservatives is the rise in the number of Independent/Resident Association (RA) councillors across Essex.

Independent/RA councillors took control of Uttlesford, are the largest group in Tendring and have swelled their ranks in Maldon to within three seats of the Conservatives. We understand that while there is no overall control in Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea, that Conservatives will form minority administrations.

For the first time, the Conservatives will only lead half of the councils in their traditional heartland of Essex.

How could this happen?

The answer lies in the fact that the largest upsets of the evening were in councils which either held all out elections, had overwhelmingly strong Conservative numbers prior to the election, or both. The Conservatives fell hardest in their strongest areas – for example in Chelmsford they lost 31 councillors (all out election and large Conservative group) and in Uttlesford they lost 19 councillors (large Conservative group). At the same time, they suffered minor losses in Thurrock where they were the largest group but didn't hold a majority, and in Brentwood where they held on to power by one seat (both held elections by thirds).

In those councils which had large Conservative groups and essentially not any real opposition to contend with, the threat of change was far removed from people's minds. Actively campaigning throughout their term in office was, perhaps, regarded as a low priority by the local Conservatives.

However, in areas such as Thurrock and Brentwood – where the Conservatives are regularly scrutinised by the opposition – dynamic and popular decision making, coupled with regular and consistent campaigning, helped to shield the Conservatives from the backlash.

So, what happens now?

These results are first and foremost a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that anywhere is a safe seat for the Conservatives. But they are also an opportunity. With significant numbers of opposition councillors across Essex, the Conservatives have the opportunity to harness the lessons of this election, listen to the electorate, and improve the provision of local services to deliver what the public want. Perhaps most importantly, they can no longer be complacent and will have to be active in their engagement and campaigning, and not just in election season.

*14 councils referred to are all local authorities under the purview of Essex County Council plus unitary authorities Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea.

Conservative Carnage in Dorset

The results are in. As the days go by, the new political landscape across Dorset's two new councils is becoming clearer. On both Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole (BCP) Council and Dorset Council the Conservatives are nursing heavy losses, while the Liberal Democrats have made a major comeback. Although they won a handful of seats on both councils, Labour will be disappointed by its inability to win any more. The Green Party is celebrating new seats and Independent councillors are a now significant presence, especially in BCP. UKIP has been almost completely wiped out in an area it may have expected to pick up seats.

Dorset Council

Despite losing many seats that previously would have been viewed as safe, the Conservatives still have a majority on Dorset Council. They hold 43 out of a total of 82 seats – a majority of two. All five Conservative predecessor council leaders who stood for election (Cllr Anthony Alford, Cllr Rebecca Knox, Cllr Graham Carr Jones, Cllr Gary Suttle and Cllr Spencer Flower) were re-elected.

As was the case around the country, voters took the chance to vent their anger in Dorset at Conservative candidates. This was to the benefit of Liberal Democrats, who now hold 29 seats on the new council. Labour won only two seats, and lost seats in their Dorset beach head of Weymouth & Portland. UKIP, although they started with what seemed like promising circumstances, did not win a single seat.

As the Conservatives have managed to maintain a majority on Dorset Council, they will be forming the new administration. Predictions made before the election had Cllr Spencer Flower, who represents Verwood and was the Leader of East Dorset District Council, as the frontrunner for the leadership. These predictions have been borne out. As in their first group meeting, the Conservatives chose him as their Leader and so he will become the first Leader of Dorset Council at their Annual General Meeting on 16 May. It remains to be seen what direction the new council will take, but there will likely be a focus on efficiency and money saving, as this was a key reason for the merger.

BCP Council

The situation in BCP is more complicated. Following its inaugural election, there is no overall political control in the new authority. This is a disastrous result for the local Conservatives, who had held strong majorities on all three predecessor councils and had been the driving force behind the merger. They now hold 36 of the 76 seats and, although they are the largest political group, are three short of an overall majority. It is unclear yet if they will be able to form an administration, or whether a rainbow coalition of all the other parties (with competing interests) can agree to work together to keep the Conservatives out.

The fallout from the election continued at the first Conservative group meeting, where a new way forward was chosen – perhaps to boost the chances of other groups helping the Conservatives form an administration. The controversial ex-Leader of Bournemouth, Cllr John Beesley (Westbourne & West Cliff), was challenged for the leadership and lost by a single vote. Cllr Bob Lawton (West Southbourne), who used to be Bournemouth's Housing & Communities Portfolio Holder, was duly elected as the new Group Leader, and Cllr Philip Broadhead (Talbot & Branksome Woods), who was Bournemouth's Economic Development Portfolio Holder, was chosen as the new Deputy Leader – the appointments reflecting the weight of the Tory group within the new authority.

Mirroring the national picture, voters seem to have viewed the election as an opportunity to give the Conservatives around the UK a kicking. There was also a local flavour to the anti-Conservative sentiment – particularly in Christchurch, which had largely been against the merger. This sentiment can be seen in the strong performance of the Christchurch Independents, which includes ex-Conservative councillors who quit the party over the merger, who won eight of the ten seats available in Christchurch. The other two seats were won by Cllr Peter Hall (Con) and Mike Cox (Lib Dem), both in the Christchurch Town division.

The Liberal Democrats have profited in BCP too, winning 15 seats and with a strong power base in Poole where they have a track record. One of the seats they took was Oakdale, which had been the seat of the ex-Leader of Poole, Janet Walton.

Most interestingly, there is now a significant Independent voice across BCP, with nine Independent candidates winning seats. Combined with the Poole People Party, which now holds seven seats, and the Green Party, which picked up two, the groups represent a significant block. Labour picked up a disappointing three seats, while UKIP again failed to capitalise on Leave voters' anger but were not completely wiped out, as they won one seat in Creekmoor ward in Poole.

Anger among Conservatives at how their party is being led on the national level has deepened following these results. Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns, who had been busy campaigning with local Conservative candidates, issued a call for Theresa May to stand down as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party.

What does this all mean?

We know the Conservatives have held onto Dorset Council and it seems likely that the Conservatives will still be in control of BCP, either as a minority or in some form of arrangement with councillors from other groups. Having received a chastening result at the hands of voters, the new administrations on both BCP and Dorset will likely have to be more cautious looking forward. There could also be more emphasis on consensus and cross-party working, to reflect the significant voice other parties now have. Clearly the message that change must come is resonating in Bournemouth, with Cllr John Beesley the first casualty of the new order.

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