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25 April 2023

A quiet revolt among councillors on progressive alliances

Exclusive polling for the New Statesman reveals enthusiasm for coalition governing in defiance of national parties.

By Anoosh Chakelian

More than eight thousand council seats are up for election in England on 4 May. As potentially the last set of local elections before the next general election, their results will be obsessively interpreted for national trends by the Westminster world.

But English councillors – of all political stripes – have a very different outlook from national politicians, according to exclusive polling by the New Statesman’s policy supplement, Spotlight.

As Labour nationally tries to play down any prospect of working with the Lib Dems or SNP in the event of a hung parliament, its councillors, as well as those representing the Tories and Lib Dems, are up for alliances. In response to the question “Are you willing to work with other parties in coalitions?”, 80.3 per cent of councillors in England said yes, in the survey of 671 councillors. Broken down by party, 81 per cent of Tory councillors said yes, 66.1 per cent of Labour councillors and 91.4 per cent of Lib Dems.

Chart by Ben Walker

Seemingly at odds with the Labour leadership’s outward dismissal of cross-party working, the party is only standing candidates in 77 per cent of wards in the upcoming local elections, down from 93 per cent last year, according to research by Democracy Club, which runs a UK election candidate database.

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This doesn’t necessarily mean there are more pacts going on locally – after all, as my colleague Ben Walker points out on our sister polling siteState of the Nation, there are more Green candidates standing in Labour seats than ever before this time round. Yet there are signs of cooperation in certain places. In Bracknell Forest, Berkshire, for each of the Tory seats up for grabs, most Lib Dem, Labour and Green candidates have a clear run. “I don’t think I’ve seen a situation as obvious as this,” writes Ben. The central parties are uncomfortable with this “rogue” local pact, according to an Observer report.

There are also explicit local alliances, for example “South West Surrey Compass” (an alliance of Lib Dems, Labour, Greens, a local residents’ party and independents), which won Waverley Borough Council off the Tories in the 2019 local elections. This group is running explicitly as an alliance in the upcoming election.

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“Despite active discouragement from party HQs, activists from all progressive parties are cooperating on the ground at these local elections to stop the Tories winning just because the progressive vote is split,” said Neal Lawson, director of Compass, a pressure group campaigning for progressive alliances. “There is an increasing appetite for change and activists are displaying an incredibly promising desire to work together… The stakes are too high for us to keep on making the same old mistakes. This toxic Conservative Party has run out of steam and our progressive parties must work together to get them out of power.”

The full results of our councillor poll will be published in a special supplement of the New Statesman magazine on 5 May.

[See also: Can the Greens sustain their gains in May’s local elections?]

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