First the good news, courtesy of the Conservative peer and elections expert, Lord Hayward. The Conservatives are fielding a record number of candidates in the local elections being held on Thursday May 2nd.
96 per cent of seats have a Conservative candidate duly nominated. That compares with 93 per cent the last time these seats were contested in 2015. That Conservative tally also compares well against rival parties. Labour have candidates for 77 per cent of the seats, the Lib Dems in 53 per cent. The Green Party in 30 per cent. UKIP in just 16 per cent. (The embryonic Brexit Party has only a tiny number and Change UK also seems to have missed the boat.)
Remember these elections include a lot of district councils which are traditional Conservative territory. There is nothing new about Labour failing to field a full slate in such places. But what of Labour’s huge membership increase? All these Corbynistas in Devon and Dorset, Sussex and Somerset might be happy to pay their subs, but evidently not to stand for election.
Within these totals, there is great variation. Consider the case of Three Rivers. This is a Liberal Democrat-run Council. In 14 seats, the Conservatives have failed to put up a candidate. Much of this is in the South West Hertfordshire constituency represented by David Gauke. So that is a pretty poor show. On the other hand, everyone in Knowsley will have the chance to vote Conservative. In Mansfield, where there is now a Conservative MP, there is a full slate of Conservative council candidates – there were only a couple four years ago. Meanwhile, for several Conservative candidates in Fenland, Ashford and elsewhere the elections are over. They are unopposed in over a hundred seats.
However, among most of the councillors and candidates I spoke to the prevailing mood was still downcast. Seasoned campaigners were shocked by the level of anger they encountered on the nation doorsteps – invariably from Brexiteers who felt betrayed.
One councillor in the East Midlands told me:
“I had somebody who was so furious he started getting a nosebleed. Even then he kept talking about the local Conservative MP letting him down.”
Someone from the North West, in a Conservative council, suggested that this week it was even harder pounding than last week:
“The decision to hold the Euro Elections is a disaster for us. For a start, it confuses matters. People think we might be canvassing for them and then really go mad. Before we have a chance of talking about local issues they start the conversation by saying they will definitely not be voting for us in the Euro Elections.”
A leading campaigner I spoke to in the South East detected a class divide:
“To give a big generalisation, the middle class Conservatives are exasperated but still voting Conservative. When it comes to White Van Man it is much worse. We keep finding those who were marked as Conservative last time actually shouting and swearing.”
Where will the angry voters go? As noted above in the great majority of places there will not be a UKIP candidate to vote for. So the biggest problem will be Conservatives abstaining. One council leader I spoke to says:
“Frankly, I think we are doomed. All our work on new housing, on infrastructure. It’s not what people are want to talk about. We don’t have UKIP candidates. But if Labour supporters vote and Conservatives don’t it’s not that hard to predict the outcome.”
But will the Labour supporters vote? One councillor points out:
“The last time these seats were fought was in 2015. So in those terms, Jeremy Corbyn is a new factor. There are people who voted Labour four years ago who will not vote for Labour under Corbyn.”
There is also caveat that when spending an evening canvassing it is the most outspoken responses that come to mind. One councillor told me:
“I had a surgery on Saturday. People talked about housing problems. We had a public meeting this week concerned with traffic congestion. There are lots of issues apart from Brexit. We just don’t mention the B word.”
Another councillor I spoke to was optimistic on the basis that the local Conservative MPs were staunch Brexiteers and so that gave the councillors some protection:
“I do think we are being shielded by our local MPs. We are canvassing very heavily. Working really hard. Inevitably people talk about Brexit and they are very unhappy with the Government. But Conservatives are a bit conflicted. Angry with the Conservative Government but also very grateful to those MPs who are supporting Brexit.”
One way to maintain morale was to consider that Labour canvassers were surely having a hard time as well. One Conservative councillor in the West Midlands said:
“We are a strongly Leave area and a strongly Labour area. The UKIP candidates are standing in Labour wards. The pro-Remain Labour MPs have gone very quiet. Frankly I think Labour have more to worry about that we do.”
Others I spoke to last week just sounded stoical saying it was tough going but not a great change. Naturally, some are worried about losing. But one councillor I spoke to said he was worried about winning:
“I have spoken to so many people who feel betrayed who will still vote for me, after I’ve told them that I agree with them. Supposing loads of people end up voting Conservative but very reluctantly? The losses might not be that bad after all. But if the Government the decided it was all fine that would be the most monumental delusion. It really is not all fine out there.“
Good luck to all those sticking at it.