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Local elections 2019: Labour’s march on Trafford

After knocking over the Conservative administration last year, Labour is now on course to win overall control of this flagship Tory council in Greater Manchester.

For 14 years, Trafford wasn’t just a Tory-run council. It was a symbol of the Conservatives’ ability to win in the North West and an enduring foothold in England’s second city. When the borough’s boundaries changed in 2004, a Tory councillor gloated that Labour would never win control of Trafford again.

Last year, Labour went some way towards proving him wrong when they unseated four Conservatives and Trafford Borough Council fell into no overall control. Labour now has 30 councillors to the Tories’ 29, and is governing in a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Liberal Democrats. As Trafford elects a third of its councillors each year, sources from several parties expect Labour to win a majority in May and take full control of the council for the first time since 2003.

Andrew Western, who leads the council and its Labour group, always thought that 2019 would be Labour’s year. He never expected the breakthrough to occur in 2018, until it became clear by the night of the count that Labour was on course to win three of its target seats. All eyes at the time were on the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster, where the party was hoping to topple the long-standing Conservative administrations. “There was a strong view that if we didn’t get the London ones, then we’re not going to get Trafford,” says Western. In the end, Trafford was the only one of the three where the Tories lost their majority.

This year Labour is targeting six seats in the borough, while the Liberal Democrats are aiming for two and the Greens are trying to nab their third, completing their takeover of Altrincham ward. Campaign insiders say that at this stage, the Lib Dems and the Greens are expected to win a seat each, while Labour is thought to have three seats in the bag, enough to hand it an overall majority. Some estimates put the number of Labour gains at seven. But Western is careful not to overstate the strength of his party’s position: “It would be disappointing, having won four of our target seats last year, not to win [at least] two this year. But it’s not expectation management to say it’s going to be an unusual election.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that all parties are expecting a depressed turnout. Sean Anstee, the former council leader who has led the Conservative group in Trafford since 2014, argues that opposition parties succeeded in 2018 because they “managed to get people who don’t normally vote”. He cites the example of Flixton, a ward which had a turnout of over 50 per cent in 2018. The Tories got 100 votes more than the previous year but still lost by more than 1,000. There was a similar pattern across several wards in the borough. “There are votes for every party in Trafford,” Anstee says. “It just depends who can get the most out.”

This year, Labour campaigners have to combat the perception that the Tory administration has been ousted and the battle has been won. Meanwhile, all parties report intense voter fatigue: in the past four years Greater Manchester has taken part in two general elections, a Brexit referendum and a mayoral contest. Whichever way they voted, people across the country are now sick of politicians and frustrated that Brexit is still unresolved. To counter this, councillors in Trafford are steering the discussion to local issues. When knocking on doors, Labour canvassers ask residents if they have any local concerns they want to raise, such as bin collections, potholes, and speeding. When some try to bring up national politics, they’re told that that’s not what the May 2nd poll is about.

Of the 21 seats that are up for grabs, 13 are held by Conservatives. They were won in 2015, a general election year in which the Tories had a strong showing. Anstee says he is a pragmatist. “We’ve had nine years in government. There was a point in Trafford’s history when Labour would have been in government for a long time and we would have been doing well locally.” He says that his party is unlikely to make gains and is focusing on retaining existing councillors. “The mood is not as bad as it’s being portrayed. I’m not getting the message back that it’s going to be a disaster; and it doesn’t feel as flooded with activists as it did last year.”

The Conservatives are having to fight on multiple fronts, as the Greens have made the council seat in Altrincham a major priority – party co-leaders Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley came to the ward this month to launch their national election campaign. “It’s looking quite positive at the moment,” says Green group leader Geraldine Coggins. Meanwhile Simon Lepori, a Liberal Democrat campaign manager in Trafford, says that in some ways this is “an ideal year” for his party, and that it’s succeeding in hoovering up anti-Brexit voters who normally back Labour or the Conservatives.

No one knows how many people will be voting along Brexit lines, but they could be a defining variable. Trafford backed Remain by 58 per cent. Western suspects there will be a degree of “splintering to the smaller parties” as people lend their vote to the Greens or Liberal Democrats, both of which have been more forthcoming than Labour in backing a second referendum. Meanwhile, both Labour and the Conservatives are vulnerable to losing votes to Ukip, which is fielding candidates in 15 wards. About one-third of Labour voters nationally are estimated to have voted Leave. “When Ukip began to emerge five or seven years ago everyone said they’d be taking votes from the Tories,” says Western, “but I always thought they’d attract some of our core vote.”

Just one thing is certain, and it’s that it’s becoming easier and easier to lose money betting on election outcomes. Last year Labour’s fourth Trafford gain, in Brooklands ward, came as a shock to all parties. “It just wasn’t on the radar,” says Western. Steven Longden, who won it from the Tories, is one of two local councillors who are Momentum supporters. He remembers the day he joined the Labour party: 20 June 2015, shortly after David Cameron won a majority in the general election. Longden was one of around a quarter of a million people at an anti-austerity demo in London, and he was shocked that of the four Labour leadership candidates, only Jeremy Corbyn addressed the march. He signed up as a Labour member that day to vote for him.

Longden puts down his success in Trafford to his approach to campaigning. “The party machine has traditionally seen canvassing as a data-collection exercise,” he says. “Newer members like me think we should be trying to convince people. We’re here to talk to them.” He says that others in Labour rolled their eyes at his extended conversations on the doorstep; but this year, they’re hoping to win a second councillor in what was hitherto a safe Tory ward.

Political battles don’t end when elections do. Trafford is no different from other authorities in that it has endured long-term cuts from central government – an estimated £130m per year since 2010. It must save a further £28.5m over the next two years. In 2018, the council plugged a £13.5m gap without job losses or service reductions. But from here on, Western warns, “Things can only get worse. There is no fat left in local government.” There could be internal wrangling over how to grapple with this if Labour does gain overall control. A budget that introduces substantial cuts may face particularly vocal opposition from left-leaning councillors, setting the council up for a potentially fractious year.

Meanwhile, Labour is facing problems in other parts of Greater Manchester. There are whispers that it may lose overall control of Bolton, as Ukip seats could fall to the Tories while local independent groups make inroads. A second threat has emerged in Stockport, where the Liberal Democrats have been strong historically and where they are said to be doing well this year. The result could be that even if the party marks another historic victory in Trafford, its achievement could overshadowed by electoral blows nearby.

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.