In the first test for party leaders since the General Election, and what was meant to be a seismic change in leadership across London, the results failed to meet expectations. With Labour targeting traditional Conservative councils such as Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster, it was expected to be an election of change for London’s inner boroughs.
Early expectations had been that Labour was due to make inroads in these areas due to recent scandals concerningConservative councillors’hospitality, the handling of the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy and thereaction of London’s EU residents who are barred from voting in General Elections. However, this vote failed to materialise in great enough numbers to effect a change in council controlin many boroughs.
On a night that was meant to spell change for many boroughs across England, it seems that the status quo has been maintained. While an early analysis suggests a 1% swing to the Conservatives outside of London, the Labour Party saw its vote share rise across metropolitan areas. Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all have reasons to be cheerful, as the results suggest that all parties took a slice of the vote from the collapse of UKIP.
The Conservatives seemed to be bracing themselves for the traditional anti-government vote on Thursday; the same swing that has been seen for decades in local elections. That did not come. While many local Conservative associations focussed much of their campaign literature on local services such as bins, it seems that voters went into the booths with their minds focused on Brexit. The Conservatives saw an average 13% vote increase in areas that had a 60%+ leave vote in the EU Referendum, with all four council gains coming from strong leave boroughs.
Unsurprisingly, UKIP’s collapse benefited the Conservatives the most as they saw huge leads in areas that formally had a high percentage of UKIP voters. That being said, Labour collected a sizeable amount of the UKIP vote in areas Labour previously did well in. The Liberal Democrats have the most to celebrate as they have collected over 50 council seats; including recovering control of its former strongholds in London Borough of Richmond and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, which both saw large swings away from the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrat victory in Richmond can be in part put down to the progressive alliance the party entered into with the Greens. Results like these have also ignited arguments within the Labour Party over its stance on not allowing local parties to enter into these sorts of alliances with other progressive parties in elections to ensure a ‘progressive’ outcome. If a change is made in Labour’s stance on this, it could lead to further changes in national election results, favouring left leaning parties. Richmond Upon Thames has traditionally voted Liberal Democrat and the Conservatives short lived control of this area could be associated with the Liberal Democrats poor showing after entering into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.
Labour probably had the most disappointing result as the Party ended the election with control of fewer councils than it started with. This was despite making over 60 seat gains and taking over control in Plymouth from the Conservatives and gaining a majority in Kirklees from a No Overall Control council and ending Conservative rule in Trafford. While Labour made small gains in urban areas, they saw a swing away from them in rural areas, which resulted in them losing control of Derby, Redditch and Nuneaton.
Both major parties felt the heat of controversy in the run-up to the election, with Labour’s anti-Semitism row costing it a large part of the vote in areas such as Barnet. The Conservatives also had significant losses in areas with large black communities due to the Windrush scandal and accusations of inherent racism. The Conservatives experienced a backlash from a hard stance on Brexit in Remain areas such as Richmond that has now reverted back to Liberal Democrat control. The voter turnout for Richmond improved from 2014 by 5.25% and may have been former Liberal Democrat voters returning to the party.
The results may not have offered a great change in leadership at a local level, or even bolster the national parties’ confidence. One thing can be clear; neither party seems to have grasped the best way to address a divided nation. While Labour made gains across metropolitan areas, there is little capacity for this to be translated in the next General Election as they already represent a majority of these constituencies in Parliament. The Conservative vote is solidifying in rural areas, where demographics are older and education standards are at their lowest. These areas also have the highest percentage of Leave voters who now sit as part of the Conservatives core vote.
This divide is most clearly seen when the local election results are broken down. As it stands, the Conservatives currently hold 60% of seats on district councils and 67% of county council positions, with Labour holding 18% and 14% respectively. When you move into urban areas, this story is reversed with Labour holding 71% of Metropolitan seats and 61% of London borough council seats, while the Conservatives hold 15%-27% of seats in cities across England.