Case study: Plymouth
Control: No Overall Control.
Numbers: Conservatives 25, Labour 24, Independents 8.
Change since last local elections: Conservatives +6, Labour -6.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: Plymouth has a strong tradition of local administration. It was recorded as a borough from 1276, was incorporated in 1439, and became a City in 1928. But Plymouth City Council, in its current entity as a unitary authority, only came into being in 1998. Since then it has alternated between being Labour or Conservative run. Or being hung. Parliamentary representation has also produced mixed fortunes for the parties over the years. Johnny Mercer was returned for Plymouth Moor View as the Conservative candidate at the last General Election with a majority of nearly 13,000. But Labour won the Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency. This seat had been won by Oliver Colvile for the Conservatives in 2015. Sir Gary Streeter, the Conservative MP for South West Devon, also has some Plymouth wards in his constituency.
Former MPs from Plymouth include Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, who won Plymouth Sutton for the Conservatives in 1919. Her successors included Alan Clark. David Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and co-founder of the SDP, represented Plymouth Devonport.
Margaret Thatcher’s last speech to an election rally was in this city in 2001. She offered a rousing appeal to local pride:
“Where better to take a stand than here in Plymouth? Plymouth – England’s historic opening to the world. Plymouth – from where Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Captain Cook set out to take the ways of these islands to the uttermost bounds of the earth? Plymouth – from where the Pilgrim Fathers left in that cockle-shell vessel on a voyage which would create the most powerful force for freedom that the world has known?”
Despite this Labour held both seats. But the reduced majorities meant the triumph was slightly deceptive. Looking back, it was the start of a slow decline for the Party. In the EU referendum, the people of Plymouh voted Leave by a margin of 60 per cent to 40 per cent.
Results: The Council is now Conservative led. They were elected on an impressively thorough Manifesto. It included some bold ambitions for economic revival and infrastructure projects. But also promised to sort out the “basics” such as bin collections and enforcement against graffiti and other anti social behaviour. They are getting on with delivering their promises with a Hundred Day Plan. They have even cut spending on allowances. Cllr Nick Kelly, the new council leader, is showing great energy and determination.
Before the elections, there had been a serious split with several councillors leaving the Conservative Group to sit as independents. This has not yet been resolved. But it seems they were not sufficiently alienated from their old colleagues to come to an arrangement with Labour.
There is a big divide between rich and poor areas of the City. The grime and unattractive social housing in the Keyham district was brought to national attention last month as a result of the appalling shooting incident resulting in six deaths. The Council is working with charities to seek to revive community spirit in the area. The challenge will not only be recovering from the shock of those events, but a wider one of despair and social decay being quietly felt by those who do not resort to violence.
Plymouth is to become a freeport which should see the creation of wealth and jobs. That is welcome. But transforming some of the rundown districts will be a big local mission. Replacing the depressing concrete “housing units” with beautiful homes would help. Just replacing a shabby ugly soulless block with a shiny new ugly soulless block (that will be shabby in a few years time) would be no use. Also needed are one of two really good new free schools – giving the sort of motivation that Michaela offers the children of Brent. At present, the City is below the national average for educational attainment for both primary and secondary schools. The Council could have an important role in making sites available.
Such progress is not impossible to achieve. But until it is, the main political trend may be growing reluctance to vote for anyone.