When it comes to political strategy, Westminster has always viewed local government as something of a poor relation. Understandably, perhaps, national political discourse views local elections through the prism of future general elections.
But local government really matters. From social care to public health to bins, our councils oversee much of the stuff of everyday life. But even in the reductive terms described above, there is an obvious question facing those who aspire to Downing Street: what is the relationship between local elections and national politics – a weathervane, a means to an end, or something altogether more significant?
As Labour licks its wounds following its worst general election defeat since 1935, the party will have to go back to the drawing board if it wants to find its way back into government this decade. As Labour’s leadership candidates prepare to face the party’s leaders in local government this weekend in Nottingham at the LGA Labour Conference, an open and sober assessment of the role and impact of local government on that path – and importantly, the lessons that can be learnt – must be part of that work. So what do we see?
Let’s start at the top. Labour’s 2019 general election losses were another stage of the long-term drift of its parliamentary representation into the major conurbations. In England, 131 of the 179 Labour seats are now in London and the six metropolitan counties, most of the rest are in the unitary authorities of the larger cities such as Bristol, Leicester and Nottingham. This is of course also reflected in the balance of Labour’s local government representation where 3,758 of its 6,260 councillors (60 per cent) represent the English metropolitan districts, unitary authorities and London boroughs which make up just 37 per cent of all council seats.
The local elections in May 2019, to a certain extent, presaged the trends in the general election with Labour council losses in, for example, Bolsover, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington and the Conservative gain in North East Lincolnshire matching some of December’s worst results. However, the comparisons were by no means uniform. Labour’s performance in several councils stood out as much better than would have been expected, and many of these seem to repeat that over-performance year after year. There are many potential explanations which may contribute to such disparities including that, in the right circumstances, local politics may matter and that the loyalty of Labour voters to their council may often outweigh that to the national party.
In May, there were ten constituencies where Labour was ahead in votes which, even at that time, were held by the Conservatives. These included Plymouth, Moor View, which the Tories won by 30 per cent in December. Another was Telford where the Tory majority increased from 720 to 10,941, yet in the local elections Labour won 52 per cent of the vote and 27 of 30 seats.
Despite Labour’s significant setbacks across non-metropolitan England, there are still 24 shire district councils with a Labour majority, most of them of course represented by Conservative MPs. Several of these are in so-called Red Wall areas, like Copeland, Barrow-in-Furness and Amber Valley.
Most notably there are a number of districts which reliably remain Labour-controlled against the trend in every other type of election. Perhaps the epitome of this is Stevenage, a borough which is one of only a handful in the country which Labour has never lost since its creation in 1973, a remarkable 32 election cycles. For well over half that period it has been the major part of a Tory-held constituency, yet in the last 30 years Labour has never been behind in votes across the Borough, even in the nadir of its national performance in 2008.
Across the country, there are numerous examples of local authorities which tend to have their own consistent pattern of results and where Labour has maintained a local electoral dominance despite becoming less and less competitive in general elections. The reasons for this are both organisational and political ranging from traditional high turnout driven by high postal vote registration, to the deployment of professional organisers and wider party resources.
Indeed, it is worth pausing here to consider the impact of organisation in electoral politics. Knowing where your voters are, and turning them out, is essential. In recent years the Labour Party has invested millions of pounds in new community organisers outside the party’s traditional regional and national structures. Yet everyone who, like me, has worked as a local organiser knows that the distinction between electoral and community organising is entirely artificial. You win elections through building community support and then translating that into an electoral machine, a role which local councillors and candidates play a key part in. The risk of ring-fencing “community” organising is that it inevitably gets sucked in to headline-grabbing campaigns which are disproportionately populated by people who are already politically committed and worse, ends up campaigning against Labour local authorities. Many community organisers have undoubtedly done valuable work but it does not match the value of week-by-week knocking on doors and speaking to voters on their own terms and from a political perspective.
More broadly, however, what all of this underlines is that local political dynamics are important. Most of the councils mentioned above are relatively small authorities which cover a clearly defined community (usually a large town) which may have its own media and certainly its own identity. Local politics and local issues are thus likely to be more salient, voters are more likely to know their councillors and the council itself to have a reputation. In New Towns such as Harlow, Crawley, Stevenage, Telford and Corby there remains, despite demographic and generational change, a strong if diminishing Labour tradition based often on shared employment and social housing and thus a residual core Labour vote, often among more elderly voters who are more likely to vote in local elections.
The more worrying question from Labour’s point of view is whether the decline in the party’s national support in these areas may eventually affect local election results as well. In this respect the 2019 general election may work both ways. Obviously it marked a seminal breakthrough for the Tories in previous Labour heartlands, however, the fact the Tories won the election paradoxically may make it more difficult for them to translate their national support into local elections progress. The general pattern historically (although not in the last five years) has been for local elections trends to be dictated chiefly by anti-government protest to the benefit of the main opposition party.
Over the next four years the Conservatives will look to convert their new parliamentary gains into broader local representation. Many of the new Tory seats have few if any Tory councillors, the most extreme example being the Borough of Sandwell which has not elected a single Tory councillor over the last four-year cycle but three of whose four parliamentary seats now have Conservative MPs.
For Labour, the questions it faces over the next five years are critical if not existential. While national politics undoubtedly steers local elections, it is equally undeniable that in bright spots across the country, Labour in local government has found a way to retain community support where the national party has lost it. The challenge is to find a way to build on that success.
Every year, hundreds of councillors are elected, bucking national trends because of their effectiveness as local representatives, and their ability as campaigners. Local politics matters – and as Labour’s next leader plots a course back to power, they would do well to keep that in mind.
Greg Cook is the former head of political strategy for the Labour Party