Local Elections 2021 Review: North-West
By Rob Chilton, Account Executive
It is fair to say that the local elections on 6th May 2021 threw up a few surprises, not least here in the North-West. This in itself is not all that surprising – due to the Covid pandemic, it has been 18 months since the last poll (the 2019 General Election), in which time, to say the least, a great deal has happened!
As well as local elections in the unitary authorities of Warrington & Halton, the whole of Cheshire voted in the Cheshire Police & Crime Commissioner election. Both Cheshire West & Cheshire East’s unitary Councils are elected in ‘all-out’ elections once every four years, the last having taken place in 2019.
Whilst Halton has remained steadfastly Labour, Warrington South Constituency reverted to the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election, and Labour only narrowly held Warrington North. So with four-yearly all-out elections now the norm in Warrington, the Conservatives would have been hoping to capitalise on this success.
In the event, the Conservatives made a net gain of 9, giving them 11 seats and official opposition status, with Labour suffering 10 losses, and the Liberal Democrat opposition also losing ground, giving them just 9 seats. Three independents were also elected in Penketh and Cuerdley Ward, giving Labour a total majority of 12, still a decent working majority, but way down from their previous majority of 22.
Due to boundary changes in Halton, all-out elections were held on the new boundaries, resulting in a massive Labour majority of 42 and very little change.
Whilst these results could have been largely predicted from the General Election result, one slightly surprising turn-up was the Police & Crime Commissioner Election, which once again pitched incumbent Labour PCC David Keane against former Conservative PCC John Dwyer. In a reversal of the previous outcome, Dwyer was narrowly elected. This was decidedly unexpected, as most pundits believed the lower turnout in Conservative areas of Cheshire West & Cheshire East would help the incumbent. If this is a sign of things to come, this could be a challenge for the Labour administrations in Cheshire West & Cheshire East, who are up for election themselves in 2023. That said, Labour’s position in these two authorities is often assisted by the strength of independent candidates in normally Conservative areas, so the PCC result may not necessarily be indicative of anything, just yet.
Aside from a handful of Council by-elections, the only major poll taking place in Cumbria was the election of the Police & Crime Commissioner. Unlike the previous election in 2016, which had proceeded to a second round (albeit, ultimately, not a close one), incumbent Conservative Peter McCall was handily re-elected with 54% of the vote on first preferences. This, in itself, is no great surprise: Cumbria has been trending towards the Conservatives in recent years, and McCall himself is relatively widely respected.
The elections for Cumbria County Council, scheduled for this year, have been cancelled due to a forthcoming reorganisation of local government in the County, the shape of which is still the subject of much dispute between the County and the Districts.
Unlike other areas, the surprises in Greater Manchester mainly revolved around the Council elections, with the Mayoral Election widely predicted to favour incumbent Labour Mayor Andy Burnham. Whilst Burnham has received some negative publicity, his populist media-friendly approach has guaranteed him strong name recognition and a sympathetic hearing from the public. Therefore, Burnham’s victory was never in doubt – the only real discussion was the potential scale of it. As it transpired, Burnham managed to increase his majority and share of the vote substantially. He outperformed the Labour Party in general, winning a number of Wards that were won by other parties at Council level. Given that he is still supported by a large Labour majority of Council Leaders at the Combined Authority, this puts him in a strong position to implement his agenda of expanding infrastructure and large-scale residential development.
The Council elections were noteworthy in some Boroughs, less so in others. In Manchester, an unexpectedly strong performance by Labour has reduced the opposition to just two members (one Liberal Democrat, one Green), and with supporters of Leader Sir Richard Leese’s growth agenda winning a number of vacant seats on the Executive, little of consequence is likely to change in the near future.
In Salford, the elected Mayor Paul Dennett was up for re-election, along with the entire Council due to boundary changes. Although Dennett is firmly on the left of the Labour Party, he has proved a popular Mayor, focusing on social housing projects and infrastructure investment. This seems to have paid off, with his coasting to victory on first preferences, the first time this particular election has not proceeded to second preferences. The new ward boundaries proved challenging for the opposition Conservatives and independents to gain traction, and the Labour Party managed to retain their position with a commanding majority, winning 52 seats, to the Conservatives 7, and the Liberal Democrats gaining one seat (their first in Salford for a number of years).
Very little change occurred in the regular cyclical elections in Wigan or Rochdale, with the incumbent Labour Party holding large majorities over the opposition Conservatives, despite the Conservatives recently having won one Parliamentary Constituency in each Borough. In Rochdale, incumbent Council Leader Allen Brett subsequently faced a successful leadership challenge from his Labour colleague Neil Emmott, who will have some work to do ‘steadying the ship’ after a slightly fraught leadership battle.
Whilst the press made much of Labour bucking the trend in the former Conservative heartland of Trafford, gaining 4 seats to give them their largest ever majority (40 seats to 17 for the Conservatives, and 3 each for the Lib Dems and Greens), these results were largely predictable after the 2018 & 2019 elections, and the Conservatives do seem to be gradually clawing back some vote share compared to their disastrous performance in the two most recent Council polls.
Oldham Labour had a particularly bad night this year, losing a net of 6 seats, with the Conservatives gaining 4 seats from Labour, independents gaining 2, and the Conservatives gaining a single seat from the Liberal Democrats. Council Leader Sean Fielding was one of two Councillors to lose their seats in Failsworth, near the Manchester border, to hyper-local independent campaigns (which have since been criticised for spreading online ‘misinformation’). Three seats that the Conservatives gained from Labour have not been Conservative in recent memory and would certainly not have been on anyone’s radar in the last decade. Although Labour still command a reasonable majority of 20, these results, combined with a handful of near misses in other wards, should be enough to alarm the new Labour Council Leader, former Deputy Leader Arooj Shah, who has promised to prioritise equality of opportunity across the Borough.
In Tameside, Labour performed slightly better than their neighbours in Oldham, despite a soaring Conservative vote and local green-belt controversy, with a consequent number of very close results. Ultimately, Labour only lost one seat, and were able to retain their iron grip on this authority.
Much had been made, prior to the election, of the potential for Labour to lose overall control of Bury Council, again with green-belt development and town centre investment issues very much to the fore. In the event, this did not happen, and although Bury’s Labour Party had a net loss of 2 seats, to the benefit of the hyper-local Radcliffe First Party, they maintained a tight overall majority of 3. Although the Conservatives gained 2 seats, they also lost two in wards that have been trending Labour for some time.
In Bolton, it was anticipated that days were numbered for the ‘rainbow coalition’ of opposition parties, led by the Conservatives, which had wrested control from an unpopular Labour administration in 2019; particularly since the Liberal Democrats had subsequently withdrawn the support of their 6 Councillors prior to the election. However, with a more solid result than expected for the local Conservatives and independents, particularly with Labour’s ‘Burnham bounce’ factored in, the Conservatives have emerged the largest party on Bolton Council for the first time in decades, with 20 Councillors to Labour’s 19. With Bolton Labour’s internal problems continuing after the elections, one Councillor resigning almost immediately afterwards, the Conservatives are certain to continue their minority administration, in tandem with smaller independent parties, into next year.
Stockport Council was probably the most difficult result to predict. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats both on 26 Councillors, Labour were controlling the Council on the casting vote of the Mayor, a precarious situation heading into an election where furious rows over the county Spatial Framework and green belt development had monopolised debate for quite some time. Ultimately, despite some ‘swapping’ of seats between parties, the net result was just one loss for Labour, with the Green Party gaining a seat on Stockport Council for the first time. Labour were able to retain control of the Council with the support of Stockport’s 8-strong Conservative group, a surprising situation stemming from the local Liberal Democrats’ difficult relationship with the other parties. Although Labour are still not in a commanding position in Stockport, not being the largest party and relying on the votes of their polar opposites, there are rumours of developments that could slightly strengthen their position, at least until the next election. Even though the elections were several weeks ago, this is still very much one to watch.
Overall a very mixed picture in Greater Manchester, with good news for all the major parties. Labour can congratulate themselves on a strong performance for Andy Burnham, and their Council vote holding up firmly in most of the Councils apart from Oldham and Bolton (where there were already existing local problems). The Conservatives can console themselves with their considerable gains in Bolton & Oldham, having held their position elsewhere despite the pandemic and the ‘Burnham bounce’; even in Trafford, where their results were not quite as horrendous as the previous two local elections. Despite a disappointing performance in Manchester itself, the Liberal Democrats largely held their own in the other Boroughs, becoming the largest party in Stockport and gaining their first Councillor in Salford for many years. The Greens also improved their position markedly, albeit from a low base, consolidating their recent gains in Trafford, and gaining their first seats in Manchester and Stockport for many years.
Whilst District Council Elections were taking place in Burnley, Chorley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Preston, Rossendale & West Lancashire, as well as the Unitary Authority of Blackburn with Darwen, and the Police & Crime Commissioner Election for the County, all eyes were on the Lancashire County Council Election. Whilst the County has started to trend towards the Conservatives in the past decade, there was a period of minority Labour control from 2013 to 2017. There have been mixed reports of the success of the current Conservative administration, and there was speculation that Labour could gain control again this time, if only in a minority.
Ultimately, the Conservatives had a relatively good night across the County. At county level, the Conservatives isolated losses were amply compensated for by gains elsewhere, and despite the fact Labour also improved their position slightly, it was not by nearly enough to challenge the Conservatives. With the Liberal Democrats having lost ground, the Conservatives now have a comfortable majority on Lancashire County Council of 12. With controversial long-standing Conservative Leader Geoff Driver stepping down from the Authority this year, the anticipated unopposed coronation of his Deputy, Keith Iddon, failed to materialise, having been successfully challenged by former civil servant Phillipa Williamson. Whether the division this will have caused will prove a challenge to the new Leader is yet to be seen.
Labour’s loss of the Police & Crime Commissioner post, held by Clive Grunshaw since its creation, was also a blow for them, having held it relatively comfortably since the inaugural election in 2012. Conservative candidate Andrew Snowden defeated Grunshaw on second preferences; decisively, if not comfortably. Whilst Grunshaw had attracted criticism for the management of the local Force, it was thought that Labour’s historic support across the county, along with its strength in their heartlands of Blackburn and Preston, would be just enough to see him through. The fact this was not the case will give Labour further headaches in the years to come.
Although elections were not being held this year in the Unitary Authority of Blackpool, or the Districts of Lancaster, Wyre, Fylde, Ribble Valley, & South Ribble, who have ‘all-out’ elections every four years, there were other local contests of some interest.
In Blackburn with Darwen, the only Unitary Authority outside the County Council’s boundaries to have elections this year, there was little change to the Labour Party’s hegemony, despite a slightly eccentric, albeit widely publicised and successful, campaign by a Conservative candidate in an urban ward of Blackburn. Labour maintain control with a strong majority of 19.
At district level, results were relatively mixed. In Burnley Borough Council, both Labour and the Lib Dems lost three seats each, with the Conservatives and Greens benefitting in equal measure. Despite this, Labour & the Liberal Democrats have reached a deal for joint control of the Council, with the Labour Leader continuing in office.
The Conservatives also made some gains in Chorley, two at the expense of independents, and one from Labour. This does not affect control, with the Borough still comfortably in Labour hands.
In Hyndburn, the Conservatives added to their 2019 gain of the Parliamentary Constituency with a strong performance in the Borough Elections, gaining 4 seats from Labour. However, due to poorer performances by the Conservatives at the previous two Local Elections, Labour still have a comfortable majority of 9. For the time being.
Pendle Borough Council had ‘all-out’ elections on new ward boundaries this year, with the Conservatives enjoying an extremely strong performance, winning 18 seats and deposing the existing Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition administration. Labour won just 10 seats and the Liberal Democrats 5, both far less than they had hoped.
Preston was something of a better story for Labour, with the Conservatives having a net gain of two seats from the Liberal Democrats but failing to make any inroads into Labour’s majority control. As an aside, Preston has a particularly left-wing administration, and Labour’s result here, as well as the solid performance for left-wing Mayor Paul Dennett in Salford, has been used by detractors of Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to urge a move back to the left within Labour.
In Rossendale, the Conservatives gained 3 seats from Labour on the Borough Council which, although pushing the Authority into No Overall Control, is unlikely to prevent Labour from leading the Council as a minority administration for the next year, as Labour are still the largest party with 18 seats, with the Conservatives on 15, along with 3 independents. However, it is likely they will need the casting vote of the Mayor to do so, so this could change on the turn of a pin.
In West Lancashire Borough, Labour lost three Councillors, two to independents and one to the Conservatives, making their minority control even more difficult to sustain. The Conservatives and independents used the annual council meeting to force through changes to the committee structure, splitting the influential positions between the three parties. Although Labour retain the leadership, it is difficult to see how this will be prolonged given that the Conservatives are now working with the local independents to effect significant change.
Although no elections took place in Lancaster City Council, the Conservatives and some independents have joined forces with the main opposition Green Party at the Annual Council meeting to remove the Labour Council Leader and install the Green Party Leader in her place. This is the first time a northern council has been led by the Green Party, and the decision has already proved controversial, given the perceived policy differences between the Greens and Conservatives.
Overall, it is a fair conclusion to say that it was a strong night for the Conservatives in Lancashire, who made gains in most areas, ranging from minor gains that proved less than expected, to significant gains that have helped them strengthen their position. Despite holding their own in Preston & Blackburn, Labour arguably have very little to be cheerful about in the short-term.
In Merseyside, elections were held for the positions of Liverpool City Region Mayor (covering the entire County as well as the Cheshire Authority of Halton), the Merseyside Police & Crime Commissioner, the Mayor of the City of Liverpool itself, as well as one third of Liverpool City Council and the Boroughs of Knowsley, St. Helen’s, Sefton, & Wirral.
The incumbent Labour Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotherham, has proved relatively uncontroversial, and given the demographics of the area in any case, his re-election was widely considered to be a formality. Accordingly, he was re-elected on first preferences with 58% of the vote. Given that the entire Combined Authority consists of Labour Leaders, this puts him in a strong position to carry through his ambitious employment agenda.
Although a request was made to Whitehall by Steve Rotherham to combine the position of Liverpool City Region Mayor with that of the Police & Crime Commissioner, this would involve extending the coverage of Merseyside Police into Cheshire, so has not happened. Accordingly, with the retirement of incumbent Labour PCC Jane Kennedy, Labour’s Emily Spurrell, a former Liverpool City Councillor and Deputy PCC, was easily elected on first preferences to fill the existing Merseyside PCC role.
The elected Mayoralty of the City of Liverpool was always likely to prove more of a headache for Labour, given the allegations of significant irregularities in the administration of the previous Labour Mayor, Joe Anderson. This, coupled with the embattled process for selecting his successor as Labour candidate, prompted allegations of a ‘stitch-up’ by some Labour members, which did not help the eventual Labour candidate, Joanne Anderson (no relation) to coast to victory as Mr Anderson used to. However, in spite of a strong challenge by independent candidate, Stephen Yip, moving the contest to second preferences for the first time ever, Ms Anderson eventually prevailed relatively comfortably.
Despite the ongoing revelations into recent decision-making at Liverpool City Council, Labour nonetheless prevailed comfortably in the Council Elections, suffering a net loss of just 2 seats to the Liberal Democrats, the latter nonetheless encouraged by some marginal gains after a long period of decline. This will provide new Mayor Joanne Anderson some breathing space as she seeks, in her words, to take Liverpool down a new path of transparency and openness.
In the Borough of Knowsley, Labour’s incumbent administration left the election count with a strong majority of 23, somewhat down from previously after a handful of gains by Greens and independents (one of the latter dramatically unseating the Council’s Deputy Leader).
One of the few success stories for Labour in the North-West was in the Borough of Sefton, where they made a net gain of 5 seats at the expense of Liberal Democrats and independents. The Conservatives also gained 2 seats from the Liberal Democrats, but some of this will have been down, in at least one ward, to internal issues within the latter party. However, in an area that was once highly competitive between the three major parties, and still contains Merseyside’s only Conservative Parliamentary Seat (Southport), Labour’s majority of 30 now seems, for the moment, unassailable.
In the Borough of St. Helen’s, Labour’s large majority was only slightly dented by the loss of 3 seats, two to independents and one to the Green Party. Labour still have a strong majority over the latter, along with the Conservatives & Liberal Democrats, of 20 seats.
Finally, in the Borough of Wirral, much-publicised factional battles within the Labour Party seem to have dented their standing to the point that they have been unable to regain overall control, despite retaining all 4 Parliamentary Constituencies at the 2019 General Election. Labour suffered a net loss of 2 seats on the Council this year, with the Conservatives & Greens both gaining ground. Despite this, it is unlikely that a workable coalition can be formed to wrest control away from Labour Leader Janette Williamson (who has been appointed Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotherham’s first Deputy Mayor) at this stage.
Overall, despite significant struggles within the Labour Party, both locally and nationally, and the recent travails of Liverpool City Council, it seems unlikely that Labour’s dominance in the Merseyside region will be seriously challenged any time soon.