Michael Gove, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, spoke to the Conservatives Spring Conference in Blackpool on Friday and heralded a rather extraordinary achievement:
“It is an amazing thing and a reflection of your commitment that after 12 years of Conservative-led national government, Conservatives are still the largest party in local government. More councillors than any other party. Running more local authorities than any other party. It is an amazing political achievement. More than that, it is an amazing achievement of social action. And the reason why Conservatives are in power in so many authorities is because Conservative councils deliver. Conservative councils cost you less – with lower council tax. They provide better, more efficient services.”
More remarkable is that it isn’t even close. According to the tally kept by Rallings and Thrasher, we have 7,562 Conservative councillors in the UK. Labour are in second place with 5,849. This year’s elections are mostly on unfavourable territory for the Conservatives – including Scotland, Wales, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Rochdale, Knowsley. Some Conservative areas – for instance, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire and Dorset – have no seats up for election at all this year. That still leaves a significant number of Conservative seats being defended in total. The English seats up for election this time were last contested in 2018, when 1,331 Conservatives were elected. For Scotland and Wales, they were last contested in 2017 – with 276 Conservative elected in Scotland and 184 in Wales.
In 2018, the Conservatives were just ahead of Labour in the “projected national vote share” by 37 per cent to 36 per cent. The opinion polls suggest that Labour will do a bit better this time. 2017 was a very good year for the Conservatives in the local elections – which would imply losing ground in Scotland and Wales this time. But in Scotland the STV voting system limits the impact of changes in seat numbers. So it is hard to envisage a Conservative meltdown. This means that the Conservatives will still be the largest Party in local government after May – even if Labour gain a significant number of seats from them. If the weekly Council by-elections are a guide it is uncertain if Labour will even achieve that.
It does defy political gravity for the Party of Government to be maintaining such a lead. Well before Labour came to power in 1997 they built up a big lead in councillors. But the Conservatives made a big recovery in town halls under Wiliam Hague’s leadership which was sustained under his successors. Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, a Conservative, was elected Chairman of the Local Government Association in 2004 – which signified that the Conservatives had regained the lead.
One caveat should be noted. The Conservatives tend to be much stronger in district councils – which also have an “upper tier” county. In those places the total number of councillors is higher than in areas with unitary authorities. For instance, there are a million people in Surrey. There are also a million people in Liverpool and Manchester combined. But Surrey has a lot more councillors – as it has district councillors and county councillors. It follows that the shift towards unitary status – for instance in Buckinghamshire – reduces the tally of Conservative councillors even where the electoral performance remains just as strong.
I will offer some predictions for this year’s elections nearer the time. London is bound to get lots of attention due to so much of the media being based there. Wandsworth is an iconic Conservative borough having delivered low tax and efficient services for decades. But Labour gained Putney at the last General Election. They already held Battersea and Tooting. In that sense, even if Labour triumphed it would not indicate that Sir Keir Starmer is any closer to Downing Street. But the symbolism would be a huge blow to Tory morale. It would be “the end of an old song” – as a Scottish noble said sadly of his country signing the Act of Union in 1707. Then again some were expecting such a result four years ago – it did not materialise.
More significant indicators for the next General Election will be the results in such places as Dudley, Sandwell, Wakefield and Sunderland. Is Labour making a recovery among working class voters?
I suspect in these council elections quite a lot will depend on what is happening in Ukraine. Craters in Kharkiv will be as much on voters minds as potholes in Croydon. It’s no use scolding voters for not only considering local issues. In a democracy they can do what they like. The UK should be proud of giving vital help to the Ukrainians well before other countries. Boris Johnson deserves credit for that. Will voters give it to him? The war may still be going in a month’s time. But will it still be leading the news bulletins?
But the broader point is that the Conservatives’ local base remains strong. How effectively Conservative councils are making use of their power is another matter. Are they really doing all they can to increase the supply of beautiful new homes? Clearly they are not. That means an electoral timebomb. But Gove is right to highlight the resilence of the Conservatives locally. As he is to claim that it shows they must be getting something right.