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The forgotten local elections – the Tories defied predictions here too

The forgotten local elections – the Tories defied predictions here too

🕔18.May 2015

Chris Game from the University of Birmingham analyses the results and outcomes of the recent local elections.  But he opens with an extended gripe at the depressing way the national media and most councils treat these events that constitute the very heart of our local democracy.

Last Thursday’s was the fifth successive General Election that’s been run alongside a set of local elections. The overlap meant our London-centric national media again had an additional excuse to do what they’d have done anyway, and ignore almost completely any local elections that don’t happen to involve Boris Johnson.

Amongst the press, there’s really no difference nowadays between the so-called qualities and the tabloids. On Saturday only the Telegraph, I think, attempted to provide any local results at all.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters spent £15 million on one night’s sets, technology and staff, yet five days after the elections the BBC’s local results summary table was still incomplete.

Last year’s excuse was the European elections. In 2011, when this year’s seats were last contested, it was the Alternative Vote referendum. Next year it’ll be the London Mayor, Nicola Sturgeon and the Holyrood elections – anything rather than the locals.

Which makes it all the sadder that most councils are so rubbish at even reporting their own results.

Take Birmingham. Yes, you can get to the results with a single click from the council website home page: the 40 wards in alphabetical order, but that’s it. No mention of percentage turnouts, ward or whole council. No clue to which seats changed party hands; of the parties’ seat totals, either before or after; or even of which party, following these elections, actually controls the council.

Walsall, the one West Midlands metropolitan council whose control did change, is slightly better, but only slightly. You get turnout figures, gainers of wards – though not previous holders – and a very pretty ward map, though coloured aesthetically, rather than politically.

You can also click to charts, showing that on the 60-seat council Labour is now the largest party, with 27 seats to the Conservatives’ 25 – but NOT that those 27 represent a loss of 3 seats and of overall council control, let alone the date of the AGM at which the future control will be officially determined.

How is it that people actually working in local government, with a vested as well as citizen interest in these results, can’t grasp that local elections aren’t just micro ward-level events, but about the macro picture of which bunch of our elected representatives runs our city and spends our money? And if they can’t grasp it, how on earth do they expect any of us to care?

Well, heck, I care – as Labour’s former leader might have protested – sufficiently anyway to attempt a belated overview of what happened last week. It starts with the national picture, then at least name-checks the results across the West Midlands region that should have received the headlines, had there been any: the councils where control changed or might still change hands.

As it happened, there were an exceptionally large number of local elections to be ignored this year – this being the year in local government’s four-year cycle that almost all English district and unitary councils had elections – and there were votes too for six mayors, many parish and town councils, plus the odd local referendum.

Pretty obviously, predicting nearly 10,000 local elections is even trickier than 650 parliamentary ones. Those brave or daft enough to try generally started from the baseline of 2011, compared that year’s results with current national opinion polls, and reckoned that this year Labour would be the net winners and the Conservatives the heaviest losers.

2011 had been surprisingly good for the Conservatives, who had gained votes particularly from disaffected Lib Dems. The poll standings of both main parties had dropped since 2011. But, with the Conservatives expected to be harder hit by UKIP’s dramatic rise, and defending twice as many seats as Labour, the latter was predicted to make most gains of councils and seats, with the Lib Dems not suffering “too badly” in losing perhaps “around 50 seats”.

Game Local Elections Analysis May15

 

 

 

 

 

Predictions for the local elections, in short, echoed those for the General Election – and so did the outcome. The Conservatives were unambiguous winners of these local elections too, gaining a net 30 additional councils and over 540 councillors. Labour lost both councils and councillors, while the Lib Dems suffered as painfully as they did nationally. UKIP advanced, but less than it hoped, and the Greens flatlined.

Metropolitan boroughs

For the Conservatives, almost as pleasing as their council gains will have been the retained control in the only two of 36 metropolitan boroughs they currently hold – Solihull and Trafford – both with additional seats. In Solihull they took Lyndon and Olton wards from the Lib Dems and Elmdon from the Greens – the latter remaining the council’s official opposition – while UKIP doubled its representation by winning Kingshurst & Fordbridge from Labour.

Of the other metropolitan councils, Labour’s dominance in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton was undented, and its near monopoly in Sandwell strengthened by Anne Hughes’ defeat in Charlemont with Grove Vale and with it the disappearance of any Conservative representation on the council for, I think, the first time ever.

In Dudley, though, 5 Conservative gains slashed Labour’s majority from 12 to 4, while UKIP, for whom the borough had once promised so much, both nationally and locally, suffered even more. It failed to add to last year’s 7 council seats, and only in Gormal’s three-cornered fight did the UKIP candidate come within even 300 votes of the (here Conservative) winner.

Which leaves Walsall, controlled since last August by Labour with voting support from Democratic Labour. The Conservatives’ four gains make them again the largest party, and their leader Mike Bird is reportedly seeking to recreate some form of power-sharing arrangement with the Independents and minor parties.

Unitary councils

Moving to unitary authorities, one of the more remarkable outcomes of these elections was surely in Stoke-on-Trent, whose traditionally and recently Labour council will be replaced by a City Independent/Conservative/UKIP coalition.

There was in fact a similar four-group arrangement including Labour in 2010, in the transition to the new 44-member council, but Labour had comfortably won the 2011 elections and until last Thursday had a 12-seat majority. Despite losing 5 seats to the Conservatives and 2 to UKIP, it remains easily the largest party, but, as we learned during the campaign, it isn’t constitutionally illegitimate for minority parties to form an administration, and in Stoke they’ve done just that.

The region’s other unitary, Telford & Wrekin, was the only Shropshire principal council to hold elections this year, but it produced a real cliff-hanger. In a whole council election following a major boundary review, Labour lost 5 seats and, by 4 votes in a three-member ward, its overall majority and Cabinet member for finance, Bill McClements. It remains, however, the largest party and is expected to retain its now technically minority control.

Shire district councils

The great bulk of the Conservatives’ shire district gains were of councils previously under arithmetically No Overall Control. But in an outstanding performance in North Warwickshire, they followed Craig Tracey’s surprisingly easy retention of what had been a Labour must-win parliamentary seat with gains of 7 seats and overall control of the council, again from Labour.

In East Staffordshire the Conservatives regained the majority they’d had following the 2011 elections, but subsequently lost to a Labour/Independent coalition following defections.

Staffordshire Moorlands has been run since 2007 by a Conservative/Independent coalition, but, with 9 gains, mainly from their former partners, the Conservatives now have a very comfortable overall majority of 16.

Over the previous couple of years Warwick Conservatives had lost their leader, several councillors, and their overall majority in a bitter 2013 row over the local development plan and siting of new homes. In addition, the council had undergone a comprehensive boundary review, though not in this instance one that cut councillor numbers.

The new mix of three-, two- and single-member wards evidently suited them, as they gained 6 seats almost entirely at the expense of the Lib Dems and restored their overall majority with 31 seats out of 46. The Greens also gained their first seat.

Worcester City has been a hung council for much of the past eight years, and recently has changed hands more by coup than election – in 2013 by a Labour/Lib Dem/Green coalition, last year by a Conservative minority, dependent on the Independent mayor’s casting vote. It’ll continue to be knife-edge stuff, but, having defeated the Lib Dem in the only ward to change hands, the Conservatives again have overall control.

Conservative/Independent Wyre Forest had also experienced a full-scale boundary review, at the council’s own request, resulting in councillor numbers being cut from 42 to 33 and wards from 17 to 12 – an apparently incidental consequence of the latter being a cut in the number of polling stations and unanticipated, and no doubt disenchanted, queues of voters.

Those making it through to the polling booths gave the Conservatives what I calculate is proportionately their largest majority in the council’s history – 21 out of 30, with three vacant seats still to be filled.

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