Story of the Local Elections: Lib Dems rise from the ashes, while UKIP crash and burn
In the 2018 local elections there were 4,406 individual council seats up for grabs within 150 different councils, as well as 6 Mayoral Elections. Clearly, this was the first huge test for the controlling Conservative Party since the 2017 General Election, as well as for the opposition Labour Party who needed to make headway in key marginals to cement their support and put themselves in a position to make a serious challenge in the next General Election. But who were the winners and losers of this Local Election? I will be considering not only the two largest parties, but the fortunes of the other parties and what this means for each of them.
Before I begin my analysis, it is worth noting that these councillor seats were last contested in 2014. Politically, 2014 was a completely different era. David Cameron was the Prime Minister and all of the five major parties had different leaders to those leading them into the 2018 Local Election. Britain had a growing movement backing a referendum on exiting the European Union – but no such referendum had been promised, let alone the nation voting in favour of Brexit in 2016. For this reason, UKIP were approaching the peak of their influence and Nigel Farage had a huge say in the future of British politics – for better or worse. As a result, in that election UKIP managed to gain 163 councillors and showed the so-called political elite that they were a force to be reckoned with. This ramped up the pressure on David Cameron, from inside and outside his party, to call a referendum.
The Labour Party were also making a huge push for No.10 and making preparations for the 2015 General Election; they would go on to do poorly. However, the 2014 Local Elections were seen as a ‘high water mark’ in Ed Miliband’s premiership – gaining 324 councillors and the control of 6 more councils. Similarly, this was a low point for the Conservative Party, as they lost a net 236 councillors and the control of 11 councils (not unexpected late into a Government’s first term in Downing Street with a General Election around the corner, but still significant). The Liberal Democrats also did poorly, with public opinion slaughtering them for effectively ‘making up the numbers’ in their coalition government. The Lib Dems, too, would collapse in the 2015 General Election, paving the way for a Conservative majority Government.
A referendum and another general election later and, in the 2018 elections, all evidence points to the Liberal Democrats being the biggest winners. In the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, the Liberal Democrats had been almost wiped out, with only 8 seats in 2015 and 12 seats in 2017 (they had won 57 in 2010, and 62 in 2005). This year though, may mark the start of a comeback for them. Firstly, they were able to win 536 councillors, which was an improvement of 75 on 2014. More crucially though, they also managed to gain full control of 4 more councils, including Richmond upon Thames and Kingston upon Thames from the Conservatives. This signalled huge support for their anti-Brexit stance, on which they have been unwavering since 2015, compared with the equally unclear policies of Conservative and Labour. An extrapolation of the Local Council elections from Sky News suggested that if a General Election was held the next day, the Liberal Democrats could gain up to 26 Parliamentary seats – or 216% of their 2017 total. All credit must, I think, be given to Sir Vince Cable, a figure who has really steadied the ship since 2017 and has made them a credible alternative once again to the two major parties.
At this point, a special mention should also go to the Green Party who were able to win a total of 39 councillor seats, up by 8 from 2014. This is a really special feat from the UK’s fourth smallest Party (in 2018) and steadily, election by election, they are gaining ground on the rest of the parties. Although they faced disappointment in Norwich, where they expected to gain more seats than they did, these consistent and gradual successes are cementing their place as a real opposition to the more ‘major’ parties. The Green Party now have their largest number of councillors ever, and the momentum that has been gained from these steady victories has ensured their place on almost every ballot paper in the country. This is a real testament to their policies and grass-roots activism as they now act almost as a pressure group for Labour, which should be viewed as a success in itself. Obviously Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s only MP, has been extremely beneficial to their success as well as Jonathan Bartley the Co-Leader.
All the Conservatives really had to cheer about in these elections, was that they weren’t a disaster for them. As the main controlling governmental party for a period of 8 years, one might expect their support to be falling rapidly, but this was not the case. The Tories lost a mere net 33 councillors from the last election and only relinquished the control of a net two councils. While clearly this is not a good thing, Conservative HQ could have been fearing a lot worse and many senior members of the Party will probably be breathing a sigh of relief. On a bad night they would have lost control of Wandsworth, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Barnet (to focus only on London). However, they managed to maintain full control of all of these councils and move Barnet from NOC (No Overall Control) to Conservative.
Whilst they lost councillors and their majority was diminished in most of these councils – they maintained control. This was absolutely vital for their mandate as many of these councils were the London embodiment of Conservativism and to relinquish control would not only have been disappointing, but have deeply challenged their ideology. Crucially, too, they were Councils that Labour would not now control. What will be deeply disappointing for the Conservatives is their relinquishing Trafford Council in Manchester which was their only metropolitan boasting in the North. After losing control of Trafford, the maps make it seem as though they are only a party for the countryside areas and southern cities – an image they neither need nor wish for. The turnover of Plymouth from Conservative to Labour overall control would also have been deeply worrying.
Although they lost councillors and a couple more councils to the Liberal Democrats – the Conservatives actually had a good election outside of London. They managed to gain some councils from NOC – such as Nuneaton and Bedworth and even from Labour overall control – such as Redditch. This was a real boost to their mandate in the Midlands which has been a battle-ground for many years and senior Tories would have been both delighted and surprised at how well they were received locally in these areas. However, these were by no means their only victories and their relative success in the rest of the country really offset the small failures in London. I believe that we can attribute this relative success to the fall of UKIP, where the majority of their votes went to the Tories instead of Labour. Labour only controlled certain councils because of a split Tory/UKIP vote and when this vote was largely combined it meant that the Labour chances of a retention diminished significantly.
On then, to the Labour Party itself. Labour also have justification for mixed feelings. Labour London will be frustrated that it did not manage to take at least the NOC Barnet Council which was their No.1 target, instead relinquishing it to the Conservatives. They will also be disappointed that they didn’t manage to take at least one of Kensington and Chelsea (especially in the wake of the poorly handled Grenfell Disaster by the ruling local Tory Party), Westminster or Wandsworth – all of which were real targets for them. Positively, however, they did manage to make councillor gains in most of them which puts them in a better position to make a charge in 4 years time. They also lost councils sporadically in the rest of the country to NOC which won’t fill senior Labour figures with much confidence, eight years into opposition. A few of these local defences and subsequent results were lacklustre and gave the impression that Labour have gone as far as they can go locally. Many of their traditional Remain bases voted for the Liberal Democrats and many of their traditional Leave voters began to turn to the Conservatives in the promise of a negotiated Brexit deal.
But as I’ve acknowledged, it was not all doom and despair for the Labour Party, as some media outlets made out over the weekend. As well as making no net losses in council control – Labour made some really significant gains in taking Plymouth from Conservative control and managing to knock a reasonably staunch Tory Trafford Council in previous years into NOC. They also made steady gains in much of the south of the country which made up for some disappointments in London and in the far North where in safe Labour seats they lost sporadic wards to the Conservatives. Labour managed to gain a net 77 councillors and a total of 74 controlled councils which is still a serious challenge to Conservative hegemony and really highlighted that they were able to mount a legitimate opposition to Theresa May and her cuts to Welfare and the NHS. What is more, Jeremy Corbyn managed to surpass that Miliband ‘high water mark’ in 2014 in terms of councillors. Having started from this relatively high base perhaps there was not much room for improvement and the Labour Party performed perfectly adequately and as predicted. John McDonnell and Sadiq Khan certainly suggested on BBC coverage that Labour’s overall performance was about par for the course.
Finally, to the massive losers - UKIP. Dejected candidates could be observed all over the country as they only managed to secure 3 councillors, a staggering 123 down from 2014. There had been no plan for the local elections from the ousted ex-leader Henry Bolton in early 2018 and it felt as though these elections were the death knell for the party. Senior and junior members of the party alike expressed deep sorrow at the lifeless performance; this after they had already fielded far fewer candidates than in 2014. But, has UKIP’s work already been done with Britain voting to leave the EU in 2016? Was this to be expected? Yes. As much as they have tried to portray themselves as the only party to deliver Brexit, more and more of their members have turned (mostly but not exclusively) to the Tories for this and many of their councillors had even defected to them or pandered to groups independent of the Party already. It is not hard to imagine the 2017 general election as UKIP’s last. I cannot see them standing nationally again – at least with the platform they were afforded pre-referendum.
The next local council elections will be on 2 May 2019 where it is mostly Tory councillors and councils defending (5521 and 163 respectively). This will be an even tougher and perhaps more telling test for the two main parties.