Despite prevailing national headwinds frequently impacting on the governing party, it is typical in the aftermath of a local election for all sides to attempt to extract some positives.
This is often justifiable as the map of UK local government often resembles patchwork which doesn’t always represent national voting intentions. However, despite a literal handful of results to the contrary- the Conservative gain of the Bedford Mayoralty, a respectable Conservative performance in Harlow and some remarkable gains in Leicester and Slough being the most obvious examples – the vast majority of results in May 2023 indicated that voters had made this the ABC (Anyone But the Conservatives) election.
Not only did the Conservatives lose the actual election badly, they also performed dismally in the pre-election expectation management game which is so crucial for the main parties in framing the post-election narrative. Prior to the elections, numerous Conservative spokespeople toured television studios predicting that the Party would lose around 1,000 councillors. This of course meant they expected to lose far fewer and would therefore be able to spin a net loss of 500 councillors as a triumph for Rishi Sunak’s embattled premiership. They fact that ultimately the Conservative losses exceeded 1,000 councillors clearly demonstrated the scale of the Party’s overall defeat. Moreover, the loss of the LGA Chairmanship will be acutely felt by the Party. Furthermore, the Conservatives should also be concerned by their failure to win back voters lost due to Brexit as they lost all Remain-voting local authorities with the exception of Rushcliffe.
For Labour, there were some very promising signs which suggests the Party is firmly on course to Downing Street at next year’s General Election. Crucially Labour triumphed over the Conservatives in a number of local authorities such as Medway and Swindon which are useful bellwethers in assessing national performance. While this was not an overall victory on anything like the scale of Tony Blair’s emphatic local election wins in the mid 1990s, this was a strong performance which will encourage Keir Starmer that he is on the right track.
If the result was broadly positive for Labour, it was an absolute triumph for the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact they were already starting from a high base (the Liberal Democrats gained over 700 seats in 2019), the Liberal Democrats made significant strides by winning outright previous Conservative bastions such as Windsor & Maidenhead, Horsham and Dacorum. The Liberal Democrats have now largely replaced the Conservatives as the dominant Party in the affluent Home Counties. The major question now remains whether the Liberal Democrats can replicate this success at the coming General Election however there are sound reasons to believe that they will be highly competitive across Berkshire, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey in particular which places at risk a number of current and former Cabinet members such as Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab.
Neither should we overlook the significant gains made by the Greens often in somewhat unlikely territory with them winning an outright majority in Mid Suffolk and becoming the largest Party in East Hertfordshire and Folkestone & Hythe. It will not be lost on some observers that these last two councils when under Conservative administrations recently approved new garden town developments which the Greens expressed concerns with. Indeed with the number of councils in No Overall Control rising we can expect the politics of Planning to be increasingly complex.
What is clear from the early horse trading in these local authorities is that there will be far more Rainbow coalitions of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens designed to lock the Conservatives out of power largely due the reluctance of these Parties to work alongside a Conservative brand which they regard as nationally tarnished.
With unprecedented levels of tactical voting for Anyone But the Conservatives (ABC) on 4 May, we can now expect ABC coalitions to form in the vast majority of councils where no Party has a majority. In the words of Rudyard Kipling one might conclude that the 2023 local elections were as easy as ABC.