Eight weeks, three places, three different by-election results in England: the north-east coastal town of Hartlepool, Buckinghamshire’s smart commuter outposts of Chesham and Amersham, and the West Yorkshire mill towns and villages of Batley and Spen.
You wouldn’t be served a “banker” pint at any pub in Amersham, and how HS2 slices through the Chiltern Hills is not much of a concern for the manual bed-makers of Batley, while the Indian prime minister did not appear on any campaign leaflets in Hartlepool.
Yet there is something similar going on in each of these places. The by-elections since 6 May have displayed a similar pattern in each constituency, where Labour lost Hartlepool to the Conservatives, the Conservatives lost Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats, and Labour clung on to Batley and Spen with a much reduced majority.
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While the overriding political story is of a Labour Party teetering on the edge of crisis, with the subplot of a Prime Minister neglecting his southern base, an urgent local-level theme is emerging.
Hartlepool, run by a Labour or no-overall-control council since 1973 and represented by Labour MPs since 1974, turned Tory. Chesham and Amersham, run by a Conservative council since 1973 and represented by Conservative MPs since 1974, turned Lib Dem. Batley and Spen, run by a Labour or no-overall-control council since 1983 and represented by Labour MPs since 1997, saw a 7.4 point drop in Labour’s vote share in the space of two years and a 22 per cent protest vote going to George Galloway.
The New Statesman team has collectively reported from each of these constituencies during the by-election campaigns, and picked up a great deal of exasperation with the local layer of party politics.
In Hartlepool, it appeared that the loss of services from the local hospital, a decline in police numbers, the rise of food banks and closures of public services and other cuts were seen by voters as part of Labour’s record.
In Chesham and Amersham, the fear of how national policies (like HS2 and planning reforms) would play locally was combined with a feeling of neglect by Buckinghamshire Council, with voters complaining about potholes in particular among other cracks in the public realm.
In Batley and Spen, voters mentioned crime rates and anti-social behaviour after the local police station was closed and sold off, as well as the state of the roads and lack of investment in high streets, under Kirklees Council.
People in these seats are not punishing the government for problems in their neighbourhoods. They blame cuts on their local councils and MPs, rather than the party responsible for the policy of austerity, which Conservative prime minister David Cameron began imposing in 2010.
These cuts have fallen heavily on local authorities over the past decade. Local government budgets have fallen across the UK since austerity began, with spending on councils in England cut by roughly 21 per cent between 2010/11 and 2018/19. Central government funding to councils has been cut by 38 per cent (from 2009/10 to 2018/19) overall. This is all while the cost of delivering social care – the legal responsibility of councils – has been rising.
[See also: How Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election]
Individual councils can decide how they allocate their budgets, of course, and are not always blameless in making poor spending decisions or even reaching the point of bankruptcy.
Of the councils that recently went bust, Northamptonshire County Council (2018) and Croydon Council (2020) in particular, had their own problems as well as budgetary pressures, for example. Independent commissioners were appointed by the government in June to oversee Liverpool City Council for three years, following a damning report that found it had “failed in numerous respects to comply with its best value duty”.
Nevertheless, a national agenda of austerity has been the main driver for councils reducing public services over the past decade.
Despite claims under Theresa May and Boris Johnson of austerity being over, 94 per cent of county and unitary authority chief finance officers expect to cut service budgets in 2021-22, nine in ten major local authorities do not have enough cash to cover their spending plans this year according to BBC analysis, and the Public Accounts Committee predicted in January that more councils would be “unable to balance their books” and faced bankruptcy.
While Labour has attempted for years to highlight the impact of austerity, the three by-election results show voters do not simply lay all the blame at the current Tory party’s door. Indeed, recent exclusive polling for the New Statesman suggests the public does not associate Boris Johnson’s government with that of David Cameron or Tory administrations past.
As austerity played out, opponents of the policy feared that the government was shifting responsibility – or “devolving blame” – for unpopular spending decisions and for increasing council tax rates onto local authorities.
“Back in 2010, there was clearly a plan to load cuts onto local government and welfare, as this was seen as less electorally risky than cutting the NHS, education and pensions,” says Adam Lent, chief executive of the New Local think tank.
“It’s a strategy that seems to have worked, given the ongoing electoral success of the Conservative Party. The question is how long it can be sustained as policy and as electoral strategy.
“Social care is a case-in-point. This is now becoming a serious liability for the government, after years of neglect as a key local government responsibility.”
Indeed, this trend for blaming local parties is not only a challenge for Labour. Early wobbles in the “Blue Wall” exposed by May’s local election results suggest county councils in the shires are also on the receiving end of anger from voters exasperated with local neglect.