1. Governance
May 4, 2018

An unspecified number of thoughts on Britain’s local election results

By Jonn Elledge

You’d think I would know, by now, not to stay up until the early hours watching local election results. Nothing happens, slowly and aggravatingly, it makes you angry, and then you just feel like crap the next day when you actually have to work.

But this is the life I chose, so let’s make the best of it. This is not a proper liveblog – it’s far too late to start one, and the New Statesman, where Stephen Bush handed over to Nicky Woolf at some horrendous hour this morning, has that covered. But the results are still coming in, and most of my thoughts go on for about two paragraphs and then stop dead.

So, I’m going to steal the liveblog format, effectively: I’m just going to write some stuff and then, probably, write some more stuff later in the day. But I’m not actually promising to, you know, cover the news or anything. If you want that, I’d go elsewhere.

Right, here goes.

Final thoughts (5.18pm)

Okay, I’m going to wrap this up and leave the office before the sun goes away. A few final thoughts.

Here’s the map of London as it stands, courtesy of London Councils:

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Political control at time of writing. Image: London Councils.

Confusingly, grey in Hounslow (west) means “no result yet”, while grey in Havering (east) means “No overall control”. Hounslow will almost certainly be Labour. In Havering, the final score was 25 Conservative, 25 independent (assorted residents associations) and 5 Labour – actually a big improvement on the single seat it won in 2014. Maybe I spoke too soon about suburban discomfort.

None of the mayoral elections have done anything interesting that I can see. The four London boroughs with mayors – Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets – all returned Labour mayors, as expected.

Watford, just outside the capital, elected LibDem Peter Taylor, which would be more exciting if he hadn’t replaced another LibDem, Dorothy Thornhill. It was a convincing victory though: 62 per cent in the second round, to the Labour candidate Jagtar Dhindsa’s 38 per cent.

Last but not least, the Tories have taken Pendle in Lancashire. It was previously in no overall control, with a Labour leader. This is not technically my beat – except I wanted to note that the only way the Tories got a majority was by allowing one councillor to rejoin the party three months after she was suspended for sharing a joke which compared an Asian to a dog.

I just wanted to note, before signing off, that I thought this was a completely disgusting way for the party to behave, and that anyone with a shred of decency would be bloody ashamed of themselves.

Still. I’m sure moderate Tories will be condemning this, any moment now, just as soon as they stop being busy with other things.

Have a lovely long weekend, kids. See you next week.

En Marche (4.01pm)

Well, it really depends how widely this happens. 

If there is a big and widespread surge of LibDem votes being disguised by a lot of narrow losses, then yes, that will be interesting. But I’m not sure one ward is enough to draw any conclusions.

(Yes I only put this in because I got told off for being mean to Bromley, go away.)

Shocking news from Sheffield (3.50pm)

In the most shocking political development since Winston Churchill said he quite fancied a drink, Dan Jarvis has been elected as the mayor of the Sheffield City Region. Here’s the final tally of the second round votes:

  • Dan Jarvis (Lab) 144,154
  • Ian Walker (C) 50,619

That’s 74 per cent for Jarvis, against 26 per cent for Conservative Ian Walker. So, not bad.

Of course, he doesn’t think the job should exist at all, and it doesn’t have many powers or much funding because half the councils in the combined authority don’t think it should exist at all either. But still. Turnout was 26 per cent.

Suburban discomfort (3.22pm)

I said earlier that, even though it had won no new councils, Labour had actually done quite well in much of London, and that does seem to be true. There are, though, two big exceptions.

One is Barnet, London’s biggest borough by population. This really should have been an easy win for Labour. Okay, it’s never been Labour before – but it’s become increasingly ethnically diverse, and the party has been getting closer and closer to its target in the last few elections, until, in 2014, it was on a knife edge: Conservative 32, Labour 30, LibDems 1. All Labour needed to do was to flip two seats.

It didn’t. It lost five. The Tories gained six. Final score: Conservative 38, Labour 25.

The obvious explanation here is that this is Labour’s anti-semitism row coming back to bite it. At 15 per cent of the population, Barnet has the highest concentration of Jewish people anywhere in Britain. As no less a lefty than Owen Jones admits:

The other big prize that Labour went backwards on is Hillingdon, out in west London. In 2014, the results were Conservative 42, Labour 23. This time round, Conservative 44, Labour 21.

I think the story here is a broader suburban discomfort thing. Hillingdon was one of only five boroughs in the capital that voted for Brexit. The others were Bexley, Bromley, Havering and Sutton. None of these are particularly London-y, being pretty white, and often less likely to identify with the capital than with the county they were carved out of.

Hillingdon has generally been put in a different box to those other four. It was part of Middlesex, a county whose identity has been entirely subsumed into London; it’s served by three different tube lines, and is the home of Heathrow Airport. It’s much more tied to the capital than the others, and has historically been friendlier territory for Labour.

Perhaps, though, it’s not as different as we thought. In much of England, the cities are moving towards Labour, the suburbs and small towns are moving towards the Tories. Maybe Hillingdon is doing exactly the same.

Anyway: the bottom line is that, just because London is shifting towards Labour, that doesn’t mean all its suburbs will do so too.

Sheffield: The Suspense Continues (2.27pm)

Blimey, the Sheffield regional mayoral count has gone into a second round. Labour’s Dan Jarvis got 48 per cent of first preferences – but because he didn’t get more than half, that means a run-off between him and Conservative candidate Ian Walker (15 per cent).

Something tells me Jarvis has still got this – but that’s not as big a mandate as Steve Rotherham in Liverpool or Andy Burnham in Manchester.

What’s the matter with the Midlands? (2.04pm)

A question to which I don’t know the answer. Check this out, from Sky’s Lewis Goodall:

This seems to be true, and it’s pretty unusual. The trend, to over-simplify wildly, is for big urban areas to shift towards Labour. The Midlands seems to be an exception, edging gently in the other direction. It’s also more pro-Brexit than other comparable regions, despite being a very ethnically diverse region.

So what explains the disparity? One possibility is that there are fewer younger voters in the region, but I haven’t checked the data. Anyone?

UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: Friend of the site Tom Forth has a theory:

Not entirely convinced: getting poorer has not historically coincideded with getting Tory-ier. But I suppose the logic might run Get Poorer > Become more likely to vote Leave > Become more likely to vote Tory. So, maybe.

More on Sheffield turnout (1.02pm)

That is quite the range: turnout was 31.6 per cent in Sheffield proper, which compares favourably to earlier mayoral elections, versus only 20.1 per cent in Doncaster. 

Not surprising that it would be highest in the city whose name is literally in the job title, I suppose. It’s Rotherham that surprises me: it’s the closest to Sheffield, and the only other borough whose council still supported the plan.

UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: Okay, I missed something obvious: Sheffield and Barnsley had council elections. Rotherham and Doncaster didn’t. That would explain things.

All of this feels academic since the battle to make the Sheffield City Region mayoral election a staging post to the first Yorkshire mayoral election has barely begun, but nonetheless.

Party hard, or common people (12.15pm)

It’s a measure of how quick-witted I am that it’s only just dawned on me that a man called Jarvis is almost certainly about to be elected mayor of Sheffield. Sadly for all of us, it’s not the one who sung Disco 2000.

Anyway. Turnout in the Sheffield City Region mayoral election was 25.82 per cent. That sounds low – it is low – but it’s not as low as it sounds.

Consider, the turnout in last year’s metro mayor elections:

  • Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – 33 per cent
  • Greater Manchester – 29 per cent
  • West of England – 29 per cent
  • West Midlands – 27 per cent
  • Liverpool City Region – 26 per cent
  • Tees Valley – 21 per cent

In the first London mayoral election, in 2000, the turnout was 34 per cent.

So, yes, just shy of 26 per cent is low. But considering this is an election to a new post covering a region that many of its inhabitants don’t recognise, where the result is pretty much a foregone conclusion, and the guy who will almost certainly win only wants the job to campaign to scrap the region and establish a bigger one… Well, I don’t think it’s bad going, really.

The result is expected at around 2pm. Dan Jarvis will win, but it might be interesting to see how much he wins by.

On London (11.50am)

Before the election, a lot of the noise concerned the prediction that Labour would basically sweep the board in London. Barnet might swing for the first time; Wandsworth, a flagship Tory borough for 40 years, might go red; Westminster, which has always been Tory, was in serious contention, and after Grenfell even Kensington & Chelsea seemed possible.

And in the event Labour won precisely… none of those boroughs.

So Labour had a bad night in the capital? Oddly enough, no. Check this out from Philip Cowley, a politics professor at Queen Mary, University of London:

Record performances in seat terms in Ealing, Enfield, Croydon, and Waltham Forest, too, he noted.

In other words, the polls were right. In much of London (there were some very depressing exceptions, which I’ll talk about later), Labour did very, very well.

Where the party went wrong was in the spin war. Someone, somewhere, should have pushed back against the idea that Labour had to win Westminster – a borough which has never, ever not been in Tory hands – for it to count as a victory. That to me seems like a ludicrously high bar.

The other problem from a national point of view is that there aren’t actually enough winnable seats in London for Labour to form a government, but there we are.

First thoughts (11.10am)

This is not a good result for Labour. Historically, local elections have represented the “floor” for governments and the “ceiling” for oppositions: because they’re a good opportunity to kick the government without turfing them out entirely, the governing party will almost certainly do better – and the opposition worse – in a general election.

That turned out not to be true in 2017, when Labour got thrashed in the locals but then did much better than expected in the snap general election just a few weeks later. Nonetheless, that’s one data point, and I’m not sure we can extrapolate from it that local election results don’t matter any more.

And if Labour is going to form a majority government any time soon, it very clearly should have done better – in both smaller cities and towns, like Derby, Swindon and Nuneaton, and in suburban areas like Barnet and Hillingdon.

This was not a good result for the Tories either. As predicted, the party is losing ground in London and the other big cities, with Labour building up its vote and gaining seats in places like Wandsworth.

We shouldn’t let the fact that the Tories didn’t lose that many councils disguise the fact that they did also lose ground in the affluent urban areas where they really needs to win if they’re going to get a majority again.

This was a good result for the LibDems. No, I didn’t see that coming either, really, but well done them. Perhaps – unlike in the general election, when LibDem wins were unlikely, and the stakes were thought to be higher – angry Remain voters saw it as a good opportunity to punish both big parties. Perhaps they’re just really good at bins.

Anyway, holding Sutton while winning back Richmond-upon-Thames (Conservative since 2010) is pretty good going.

The map is getting more American. In the US, Democrats increasingly dominate young, diverse and economically vibrant urban areas; Republicans dominate older, whiter more rural ones. As that map has taken hold, depressed, blue-collar areas, that were once reliably Democratic, have increasingly been shifting to the right.

It feels to me like we’re seeing something similar in the UK. The types of old Labour areas that voted for Brexit feel a lot like the type of rustbelt cities that moved towards Trump. That pattern seemed to hold at the 2017 general election, when Labour won Kensington and Canterbury but lost ground in parts of the north. And it feels like it’s holding steady now.

More thoughts as I have them. If you want me to think about anything in particular, tweet me.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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