Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
The Golden Lion, St John’s Chapel
The first electoral challenge for the Conservative Party after the Prime Minister’s stunning victory in December comes in the local elections this May. These aren’t natural ‘Conservative defence councils’, since they are mostly made up of core metropolitan areas or unitary authorities that are Labour controlled.
We must also remember that we’re now some years into Conservative-led Government. However, Boris Johnson’s win with a majority of 80 is a very different outcome to the one which gave us David Cameron’s Coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010-15.
Some areas up for election this time cover parts of the so-called “Red Wall” – so they’ll give a signal as to whether Conservatives are building the foundations of a new “Blue Wall” on the base of those new MPs or, alternately, if Labour will be able to rebuild from their strong local authority control in these areas. For both parties, they will give a signal as to where the fight might be in future years up to election 2024.
My “Bricks Picks” are the following:
Andy Burnham is all but guaranteed to be back as Greater Manchester’s Mayor. But within the conurbation lie more Conservative Parliamentary seats than for quarter of a century.
During last year’s election, we gained both Bury Parliamentary seats from Labour by wafer-thin majorities of just 402 and 105. With only a third of the council up this year, it’s not possible for Conservatives to win the council overall, but it is possible for us to gain seats and for Labour to go backwards.
If Labour lost this council to NOC, or even a handful of key wards, then it would be a disastrous night for whoever their new leader is. That’s unlikely, but the ‘Bury Brick’ of the former Red Wall is the one to watch.
Why are they all called “Andy?” Andy Street has been doing a cracking job locally. With Labour requiring just a 0.5 per cent swing, the party may believe that it will just make it over the line.
However, Andy has put the mayorality on the map, so he has an outside chance of victory. A win for the Conservatives here would be a massive achievement, and would continue to allow us to claim a major metropolitan conurbation as ours.
Until relatively recently Dudley, also under the West Midlands combined authority, has been solidly Labour. The swing to the Conservatives in Dudley North during the election campaign was one of the largest in Britain (the former local Labour MP Ian Austin backed local Conservatives due to Labour’s anti-semitism).
His personal support clearly helped in a Parliamentary election against Jeremy Corbyn, but that won’t be the case come May. At council level, Dudley is currently NOC – if it is taken by either Labour or Conservatives the victor will chalk it up as a significant success.
Ben Houchen was probably the biggest surprise of local election night 2017 winning with a first round of just 39.5 per cent on a 21.3 per cent turnout.
His victory is now seen as a catalyst for much of the progress across the North East that Conservatives made in 2019. He has capitalised by delivering on some of his bold promises, such as nationalising the airport in Tees Valley (which is restarting soon and new routes are being announced regularly) and promising to bring steelmaking back since its mothballing by SSI, with a new electric arc due to come in.
Given the previous low turnout and tight result this is definitely a contest Labour can win. Indeed, it’s one that they should never have lost in the first place but, Ben has worked hard locally and delivered. If Labour don’t manage to wrestle back control her, then their new leader will face some very serious questions within a month of being elected.
So far out that I hesitate to include it. Back in 2016, Labour’s Ron Hogg smashed it locally with a first-round victory of almost 51,000 votes (63.8 per cent) of the vote to the Conservatives share of under 19,000 (23.6 per cent).
However, the general election saw a tiny majority win by the Conservatives across the PCC area. Labour selected a new candidate, following the sad death of Hogg, late last year, and Conservatives will be shortly doing the same.
Perhaps this should be a foregone conclusion of a Labour victory but it will definitely be interesting to see if the Conservatives manage to pick up vote share significantly or even, at a stretch, manage to take the vote to a second round – or if the previous Labour landslide results end up being reflected again.
If it’s the former it will give the Conservatives heart for the local elections next year on Durham County Council. If the latter, Labour will feel very confident of retaining overall control of this county that’s been under Labour total control at local government level since 1919.
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These local elections may turn out not to matter very much – after all, Ed Miliband did well in local elections but failed in 2015. Furthermore, the Coronavirus could yet affect them severely.
But, all other things being equal, given the demographic changes in voting patterns you might expect to see at least a modicum of underlying trend movement, if the 2019 result is to be believed, based on more than ‘borrowed votes.’
There have been some grumblings about CCHQ moving slowly to recognise the new political reality with resources and support for different parts of the country. However, with Amanda Milling now in place, alongside Ben Elliott, it’s clear to me that at the top the party gets the next stage – it’s now a matter of ensuring that those resources and support is cascaded down across the country to help build the foundations of future successes.