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  1. Spotlight on Policy
24 November 2023

Exclusive poll: Tory councillors deliver dire verdict on the Sunak government

Less than a third say Westminster policies have been good for their local areas, a New Statesman Spotlight survey finds.

By Jonny Ball

Our survey of councillors from across English local government has revealed a bleak mood among the Conservative grassroots, and a grim snapshot of a depleted public realm. We sent surveys to councillors in every local authority and received more than 500 responses, from all parties.

After the 2019 general election, Labour was left with its lowest seat tally since 1935. While its share of the vote held up at around 32 per cent – a little higher than Ed Miliband’s in 2015 – the party had become woefully inefficient at turning its national percentages into the requisite parliamentary seats. Its support was concentrated in safe constituencies in large cities, and its historic heartlands had turned into Tory marginals.

A psephological post-mortem by the Fabian Society, Another Mountain to Climb, said that Keir Starmer would need a record swing to enter Downing Street at the next election – an unlikely prospect, it concluded. Instead, it soberly reflected that Labour would have to make “major progress in this parliament to have a hope of winning power within 10 years”, suggesting that the opposition “may need to consider formal alliances” with the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

Today, the world seems very different. Since that report, two prime ministers have been ignominiously ejected from office, only to leave a third without a mandate from his own party members or the country. Covid-19 wreaked havoc on a global economy that is now battered by inflation and multiplying geopolitical crises. Labour is consistently double digits ahead in opinion polls.

[See also: What does it mean when a council declares itself bankrupt?]

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Only 7 per cent of Tory respondents to our in-house polling predicted a Conservative majority at the next election. Two thirds expected Labour to form the next government. And their assessment of No 10’s policy agenda was withering. Boris Johnson delivered a Brexit realignment that now looks temporary, with the coalition of the more affluent, true-blue Home Counties and the post-industrial Red Wall ripped apart by partygate, Trussonomics and a rudderless Rishi Sunak. Johnson promised sunlit uplands and a “roaring Twenties”, but today, 34 per cent of Conservative councillors say Westminster policies are having a negative or very negative effect on their areas, against just 27 per cent who say positive – and a tiny 3 per cent who say very positive. Among all respondents, only 6 per cent of councillors think they are seeing positive outcomes from policies passed down from Whitehall.

[See more: The shattered Tory bloc and the end of levelling up]

Our previous poll of councillors, in May, exposed the failures of devolution and levelling up, with over 84 per cent reporting “no tangible benefits” from the regional policy agenda and 92 per cent saying funding for their councils was inadequate.

In this survey, with questions focused on Labour’s five missions, councillors describe a similar picture of a depleted local government sector after 13 years of budget cuts and austerity. Councils have absorbed much of the fiscal tightening that has occurred since the financial crisis – with some metropolitan authorities losing two thirds of their government grant. Birmingham joined Woking, Thurrock and others in issuing a section 114 effective bankruptcy notice this year. Twenty-four per cent of survey respondents said it was likely or very likely their authorities would have to do the same. And this wasn’t just profligate Labour members exaggerating their predicament – 18 per cent of Tory councillors said their council was on a financial precipice.

Clive Betts, Labour MP and chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, told Spotlight that, “it is not just individual councils, but councils across the board that are facing really serious financial challenges”. His committee had “frequently heard that councils face being on a ‘knife-edge’, or that local authority finances are reaching a ‘tipping point'.” These distressed councils, he said, “weren’t all authorities hit by specific, one-off issues and financial outlays such as historic pay claims (as was the case in Birmingham recently). Rather, they were councils tipped into difficulty by other more generalised factors, including problems meeting the rising costs of social care, and tackling the housing crisis and homelessness”. 

In such negative circumstances, it seems the opposition has a clear path to victory. The ruling party is devoid of ideas and presides over managed decline, unable to stir enthusiasm even from its own elected local representatives.

But the impression left by our survey results shows the scale of the challenge for any incoming government: only a third trust Starmer to deliver on his five missions should he win power. Only around 10 per cent of councillors say the economy in their areas is now in a better state than in 2010. Even 63 per cent of Conservatives say their high street has got worse or much worse since 2010 – another damning indictment of their own party's record in power. Eighty-eight per cent say local NHS and social care services are in a worse state, including a third of Tories; 52 per cent say crime rates are higher. Of Labour’s missions, only the one on education stands out as a positive outlier for Starmer’s party, with a solid base upon which to build: 58 per cent of councillors say schools in the areas they represent are good or very good.

Given its poll lead, one might expect a mood of optimism from Labour’s council cohort, with a feeling that things can only get better. And yet while they have near-universal confidence in their party's ability to overturn the historic, seismic defeat of 2019, one summed up an attitude of caution: “The massive worry is that Labour won’t make much difference... Without [a new funding settlement] we are slipping closer to the abyss.” 

[See more: Council bankruptcy tracker – authorities under increasing financial strain]

This article originally appears in a New Statesman supplement on Labour's path to power, distributed with the New Statesman issue of 24 November 2023.

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