Which way will the political wind blow in Milton Keynes?
In the week in which many councils started their purdah periods ahead of the 2019 local elections, eyes have turned to another potential General Election in the coming months following the decision of MPs to once again reject the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. In such circumstances, there will be considerable focus on the councils where elections are taking place on 2 May which cover the bellwether constituencies which decide which Party is in Downing Street.
There is no better example of such a place than Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is the home to two Conservative MPs – Armed Forces Minister Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) and Government Whip Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South). Both constituencies saw large swings to Labour in 2017 with both MPs having their majorities cut to under 2,000. Put bluntly, Jeremy Corbyn’s road to Downing Street will need to go through Milton Keynes.
Furthermore, as if to underline its status as a location which is highly representative of the national mood, Milton Keynes narrowly voted in favour of leaving the European Union by 51.4% to 48.6%.
Moreover, in terms of its local governance, Milton Keynes is similar to the country as no Party has an overall majority. However, where it does depart from Westminster is that its civic leadership is currently headed by a minority Labour administration which is supported by 12 Liberal Democrat councillors. The Council Leader, the charismatic Pete Marland, has championed economic growth and was greatly disappointed when a planned announcement of 100,000 new homes in the outskirts of Milton Keynes which was due to be announced by the Chancellor at the 2018 Budget was supposedly blocked by Lancaster and Stewart who were concerned about the impact that such a large house building programme would have on Milton Keynes’ transport infrastructure and healthcare services.
The Labour administration, which is an island of red in a deep sea of Conservative blue around it, has traditionally championed economic growth while having a sometimes difficult relationship with its neighbouring authorities. The authority is at the heart of the Oxford/Cambridge Arc and will be served by East West Rail but challenges to attract investment remain. With the Buckinghamshire districts due to be merged into a large unitary authority from April 2020, there is likely to be an increasing need for Milton Keynes to assert itself in future years in order to compete for investment alongside a larger neighbouring authority.
As we look ahead to the elections, Labour starts in a strong position to make gains. Of the 19 seats up for election, Labour is defending only 4 with the Conservatives defending 13 seats which were won on the day of the 2015 General Election, a historically high water-mark for the Party. Among those Conservative councillors who are at serious risk of losing their seats is Conservative Group Leader Alex Walker who is due to defend his seat in Stantonbury ward which was won by Labour in both 2016 and 2018. Labour will also be looking to pick up the highly marginal Bletchley Park and Bletchley West wards from the Conservatives. In order to win an outright majority on the Council, Labour will need to win 12 of the 19 seats up for election on 2 May. While it seems likely that Labour may get close to this target, the likelihood is they will just fall short.
The Liberal Democrats will also be optimistic of making a small number of gains from the Conservatives and are likely to focus their efforts on Campbell Park & Old Woughton and Shenley Brook End wards where they already have a representation on the Council.
The Conservatives will be hoping to minimise losses and maintain a sizeable enough group to have a chance of winning control of the Council in future election cycles where there will be more scope for gains.
What we can confidently say is if you want to see which direction the political wind is blowing, keep a close watch on what happens in the UK’s most famous new town on 2 May.