Local elections should be about local issues – and to a considerable extent they are. The great variation in results – sometimes even in neighbouring local authorities – is evidence of that and a frustration to the pundits seeking to explain everything in the context of the overall trend.
On the other hand, it would be naive to imagine that broader political considerations have no impact when councillors are elected. The most obvious distortion to the great exercise in local democracy that was undertaken on May 3rd was Brexit. The main discussion has been how much harm the issue caused to Conservatives in London. But what of some of the traditionally Labour areas outside London which voted Leave by wide margins in the referendum two years ago?
One group of people who will surely have taken a keen interest in such results and reflected carefully on the reasons for them will be the Labour MPs representing such constituencies.
Now as we know that local authority and constituency boundaries are different. Professor Chris Hanretty has made a valiant effort at extrapolating the vote to estimate the constituency votes for England and Wales. Here are the 35 seats, currently represented Labour MPs which had the highest proportion of Leave voters. They are in ascending order of Brexitishness. Birmingham Yardley was calculated to have had a 63.9 per cent Leave vote up to Stoke-on-Trent North with 71.3 per cent.
- Birmingham Yardley
- Doncaster Central
- Denton and Reddish
- Rother Valley
- Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle
- Nottingham North
- Wolverhampton North East
- Bradford South
- Dagenham and Rainham
- Washington and Sunderland West
- Blackpool South
- Barnsley Central
- Houghton and Sunderland South
- Wolverhampton South East
- Sheffield South East
- West Bromwich East
- Don Valley
- Great Grimsby
- Dudley North
- Wentworth and Dearne
- West Bromwich West
- Kingston upon Hull East
- Barnsley East
- Doncaster North
- Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford
- Stoke-on-Trent North
Not all these areas were voting in the local elections. But in those that were, Labour tended to do badly and the Conservatives tended to make gains.
- In Dudley, the Conservatives gained seven seats. The Labour MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin, had a majority of 22 at the General Election last year.
- Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby; she had a majority of 2,565 last year. The constituency comes under North East Lincolnshire – where the Conservatives also gained seven seats in the local elections.
- Then we have Newcastle-under-Lyme where the Conservatives gained three seats. That includes part of the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency.
- In Sunderland, the Conservatives gained a couple of seats. Wakefield (which includes Hemsworth represented by the Shadow Cabinet Minister Jon Trickett and Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford represented by Yvette Cooper) had four Conservative gains.
All these results are more impressive for the Conservatives when you consider that only a third of the seats were up for election.
Hull provides a cautionary note – Labour lost nine seats there but they went to the Lib Dems. So it is hard to make sense of that by relying on Brexit as the explanation.
So nothing all that conclusive. But perhaps a sense that Labour MPs representing Brexiteer constituents might not want to push their luck. When people speculate about Parliamentary votes that could thwart Brexit and bring down the Government the focus is often on the modest number of Conservative rebels that would be required.
What about the other side of ledger? Why assume that all these Labour MPs would vote to stay in the Customs Union? (A point already made by Paul Goodman on this site, backed up by the view of a Cabinet Minister.) Or wish to force an early general election with the proposition that the referendum vote should be overturned? The difficulty they would have is not just that those of us who voted Brexit have generally given no indication of regretting our decision. It is also that many who voted Remain are imbued with the sporting British sense of fair play. They feel that it is good form to accept the result.
In that context imagine yourself to be Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North (with a majority of 2,359) and your dismay at the Conservatives winning two out of the three three seats in the Kidsgrove & Ravenscliffe Ward. All very nerdy to be concerned in such detail – but not if you are Smeeth. You will have noted the analysis from The Sentinel that the “controversial closure of the town’s sports centre, under the previous Labour administration, was a key election issue.” Yet still there’s a nagging doubt….
The sense for some of these Labour MPs will not be of despair – but some anxiety. It is one thing to challenge the Government over the details of the Brexit settlement and criticise their performance over the negotiations. But to derail the whole process by bringing down the Government and causing an early General Election? The only issue at such an election would be whether the referendum result should be upheld or overturned. How much more patience are the traditional Labour voters in Stoke-on-Trent North expected to show? How much more is their loyalty to be strained?
To put it mildly, the council election results will have done nothing to give Labour MPs in such seats any enthusiasm to force a general glection pre-Brexit. Or seek to thwart the referendum result. Or stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.