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The local elections in Greater Birmingham – minus Birmingham

The local elections in Greater Birmingham – minus Birmingham

🕔28.Apr 2016

Chris Game, from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies, fills in the gaps on our local elections preview across the ‘Greater Birmingham’ patch. 

I recall wondering, when the West Midlands Combined Authority was definitively named, whether the Chamberlain Files would quietly, if reluctantly, drop its campaign for ‘Greater Birmingham’.

Silly me. It still proudly “provides news, insight and gossip on all things political in the Greater Birmingham area” – except that, come the local elections, the ‘Greater’ bit does rather lose out to the chief blogger’s matchless insider knowledge of every defending Birmingham City councillor and a good proportion of the challengers.

This is especially unfortunate in a year when, given Labour’s massive 36-seat majority and with only one-third of seats being contested, we already effectively know the Birmingham macro result in advance: that, as Paul Dale (for it is he) noted, Labour will “still be the leading party when all the votes have been counted”.

He might as safely have made it ‘majority party’, and indeed something similar could be said of several of the 14 other sets of council elections across ‘Greater Birmingham’ and the West Midlands. But very far from all.

Even with no whole-council elections in the West Mids this year, it’s likely there will be some change in one or more councils’ political control both in the metropolitan area and in each of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire – the rest of this blog post focusing on the former.

One explanation lies in the changed political climate. Since May 2012 when this year’s tranche of seats was last contested – arguably Ed Miliband’s finest electoral hour – there’s been a roughly 4% opinion swing nationally from Labour to the Conservatives.

2012 shares of national vote: Lab 39%, Cons 33%, Lib Dems 15%, UKIP 5%;

Averaged current opinion polls: Cons 36%, Lab 34%, UKIP 12%, Lib Dems 7%.

I know the polls’ recent record isn’t great; also that large numbers of us do vote quite differently in local and parliamentary elections. Even so, coupled with last year’s results in the same wards, this comparison provides the best baseline we’ve got.

COVENTRY (Lab)   Present council: Lab 41, Con 13

The Conservatives’ brief spell in charge (2006-10) is a fast fading memory. Labour regained control in 2010, and in 2012 its 8 gains, a 51% vote share, and our anti-proportional electoral system produced between them a majority of 32 on a now two-party council.

The Conservatives will aim to reverse their closest 2012 losses, in Bablake, Westwood, and Woodlands – the latter two of which they took in 2015 – and defend more effectively ultra-marginal Cheylesmore, lost last year by nine votes.

In 2012, like the Lib Dems, Socialist Alternative lost its sole councillor, former Labour MP, Dave Nellist.  He now represents the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition (TUSC), who contest all 18 Coventry wards, 12 in Birmingham, and are again the sixth party in these elections, as well as arguably the fiercest defenders of local government itself.

In 2015 UKIP also had candidates in all wards, and polled a respectable 15.5% of the vote, but, as in Birmingham (Shard End), managed just one second place – in Longford. This year, perhaps concentrating on next month’s referendum, they’re down to just 8 candidates.

DUDLEY (Lab)  Present council: Lab 38, Con 25, UKIP 7, Green 1, Ind 1

As in Birmingham, eight years of Conservative rule ended abruptly in 2012 as Labour took 12 of their seats, UKIP’s one, and majority council control.

In 2014, nearly as dramatically, UKIP returned, winning seven mainly Labour seats and the second largest UKIP representation among metropolitan boroughs.

The council’s above-average quota of two-party marginals means a very feasible 6% Labour to Conservative swing from 2012 could see them back as largest party by simply reprising last year’s wins in Gornal, Halesowen North, Kingswinford North, Wordsley, Amblecote, Wollaston & Stourbridge Town, and Belle Vue – the first two of which are defended this year by cabinet members.

Pedmore & Stourbridge East is already Conservative, but electors get a double vote: for or against the incumbent, Les Jones, who stands on the same day for West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner, plus one to replace Mike Wood, elected last year as MP for Dudley South.

UKIP’s 23% vote last year didn’t gain them any extra seats, but they again contest all 24 wards, their best chances statistically including Quarry Bank, Gornal and Coseley East.

The Greens’ full slate of candidates last year were much less successful. They’re down to 17 wards this year, easily the most important being Netherton Woodside & St Andrews, the party’s sole seat but from which the incumbent, Will Duckworth, the national party’s former deputy leader, is stepping down.

SANDWELL (Lab)   Present council: Lab 69, UKIP, 1, Ind Lab 1, vacant 1

The vacancy was created by the shock death of the much respected Darren Cooper. Cooper had led Sandwell council since 2009, during which time it became again one of England’s most politically unbalanced – exemplified by his own remarkable 95.2% vote in Soho & Victoria – but also one of the most democratically ineffectual.

In 2012 Labour took all 24 wards, and last year saw off the final Conservative in pastoral-sounding Charlemont with Grove Vale. UKIP’s Philip Garrett, elected in 2014 for Princes End, thereupon became ‘the Opposition’ – though a somewhat half-hearted one when it came to voting through the recent 3.99% council tax increase, costing councillors’ not exactly affluent electors an extra £30 to £40 a year.

Still, these two wards remain probably the best prospects for even denting Labour’s hegemony, which, incidentally, rests currently on under 30% of the registered electorate in what was a General Election year – so probably half that after next Thursday: one adult resident out of every 6 or 7.

SOLIHULL (Con)  Present council: Con 32, Grn 8, LD 6, UKIP 2, Lab 1, SDP 1, Ind 1

Solihull, with Norwich, is the only English council on which the Greens form the main opposition, and their rise, helped by Lib Dem defections, has been the local electoral narrative of recent years.

Until 2015, when a failure to win wards previously taken – Shirley South and West – was followed by Mike Sheridan, Solihull’s first Green councillor, joining the Social Democrats – and becoming a non-person in the Greens’ online history. Sad; of them one somehow expected better.

The Conservatives currently look secure, and just rerunning 2015 would bring them several gains: from the Lib Dems in Elmdon, Lyndon and Olton, the Greens in Shirley West, Independents in Blythe, and Labour’s last remaining member in Kingshurst & Fordbridge.

Green hopes will again be to prise Shirley East and South from the Conservatives, with Maggie Allen retaining West to end the party’s disappointing all-male line-up.

WALSALL (Con minority)   Present council: Con 25, Lab 27, UKIP 3, LD 2, Dem Lab 1, Ind 1

Walsall has been Conservative controlled since 2004, barring a brief Labour interlude in 2014-15. Last May, taking seats from both Labour and Lib Dems, the Conservatives, backed by three UKIP and two Independent members, formed a single-party minority administration.

Labour is the largest party, but the Conservatives hold the stronger electoral hand. In 2015 they took 11 of the 20 wards and this time defend from 2012 just seven relatively stronger ones. Labour defend nine and will struggle to prevent the Conservatives becoming again the largest, and conceivably majority, party.

UKIP’s targets must again be their 2014 gains: Labour-held Brownhills and two rare genuinely four-way marginals: Short Heath and Willenhall North.

WOLVERHAMPTON (Lab)   Present council: Lab 47, Con 10, LD 1, UKIP 1, vacant 1

The vacancy here arose from the death last October of long-serving Bilston East councillor and former Mayor, Bert Turner – though why the 6-month by-election rule was stretched isn’t clear.

Turner’s mayoral year immediately followed Labour’s regaining its customary majority control in 2011, which it secured in 2012 with gains from the Conservatives (10) and Lib Dems (1), and has reinforced since.

It now defends those 2012 wins, but last year took, mostly comfortably, all the relevant wards except Merry Hill and Penn, plus Spring Vale from the Lib Dems.

Spring Vale went to UKIP in 2014, when the party’s 27 per cent vote share across the council pushed the Conservatives into third place. But they slipped to 18 per cent last year, and this time field only eight candidates.

Still in double figures, the Conservatives aren’t an irrelevance, but they’re apparently struggling to run their own candidate selections, never mind taking on a whole council.

Tettenhall Regis they evidently see as so safe that they’ve, possibly accidentally, nominated two councillors between whom voters can choose for themselves.

It could be incompetence – or just possibly a subtle attempt to persuade their reluctant party leadership of the virtues of proportional representation and more representative party list systems.

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