Among the abundance of elections taking place in May are those in 59 district councils. There would have been a few more. But no council elections are taking place in Cumbria, Somerset, or North Yorkshire, due to plans to establish unitary authorities in those areas. Those proposals reflect a trend elsewhere. It is a quiet but fundamental change that has had little attention – due to it having taken place over several decades. This year we see the emergence of North Northamptonshire Council and and West Northamptonshire Council with unitary arrangements for that county. Last year it happened to Buckinghamshire. The year before that it was Dorset. In 2009 we saw it take place in Wiltshire, Shropshire, Cornwall, and Cheshire. It has resulted not only in fewer councils, but also in fewer councillors. In 2005 there were over 22,000 of them in the UK. By 2019 it was down to 19,647. If only MPs at Westminster had made equivalent progress in reducing their own number.
Anyway, there are still enough district councils still in existence to keep the psephologists busy – though the electoral drama is constrained by most of them only contesting a third of their seats and thus limiting the potential for the number of councils that can see a change in political control. The last time these seats were contested was in 2016. As I noted yesterday, that year saw Labour doing relatively well – compared to what the current opinion polling suggests of their present standing.
Burnley in the red wall (or “blue wall” as it should now be regarded) will be one to watch. Labour had already started to lose some seats to independents. But the Conservatives start from a low base with four councillors (of which, I gather, only one seat is up to be defended this time.) Labour have 22, of which they are defending nine.
By contrast, if Labour are picking up more support from a certain type of middle class voter, might they see gains in Worthing? It is not far from Brighton and Hove…
Other Labour/Conservative battles are in Amber Valley and Cannock Chase (where the Conservative Party Chairman Amanda Milling will take a particular interest). In both places, Labour start with a narrow lead. There is also Pendle – which has all the seats up for election – where there is a Labour/Lib Dem coalition. Yet the Pendle constituency has a Conservative MP.
But in more of these councils, the real contest is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Will the best indication be the local election results of 2019 – where the Lib Dems did so well? Or the General Election, a few months later that year, where they got so resoundingly trounced? The opinion polls currently have the Lib Dems on around seven per cent. About the same as they were doing in the opinion polls in 2016. When it comes to real votes, in these local elections they will probably do much better. But then they did in 2016 when they won 15 per cent of the projected national vote share.
Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:
“If the Lib Dems don’t make progress on 2016 it will be a disappointment to them. In those places where they got new councillors elected in 2019 they will have tried to get dug in. So they will be looking for further gains. St Albans is somewhere they will be looking to gain where it is currently under no overall control.”
Cheltenham has half the seats up for election. The Lib Dems are already in control of the Council. Yet the Parliamentary constituency has a Conservative MP.
Perhaps too much focus on the established parties is the “old politics.” The last time we had local elections – in 2019 – the Conservatives did very badly. But independents and assorted residents associations gained almost as many seats as the Lib Dems. Usually, the catalyst turned out to be planning developments. Objections would be made to the high-handed manner in which such schemes would be put forward – arrogant bureaucrats engaging in purely sham “consultation” and “engagement”. However, the real problem was that the new homes proposed were ugly. Given that cutting off the supply of new housing would also prevent difficulty, the Government has proposed that councils should go ahead with housing development – but that it should be beautiful. Those new rules have yet to come in. Some councils have already got the message. Others have not. That is quite likely to result in some uneven electoral consequences which will only make sense once the local circumstances are investigated.