LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012 IN RETROSPECT

Posted on 12 June 2012 by admin

Local election results – England and Wales

The 2012 local elections, leaving the London mayoralty aside, were a considerable success for Labour. While in 2011 Labour did very well in the big urban areas and not so well elsewhere, in 2012 Labour advanced pretty much everywhere that the party is a viable proposition, including such places as Weymouth, Tamworth and Great Yarmouth where the Conservative vote held up well in 2011, suggesting that the party is making progress on a much wider front than last year.

In terms of benchmarks and targets for party performance, Labour exceeded all realistic expectations. The party made a net gain of 823 seats across Britain, comfortably over the 700-720 that was the highest legitimate benchmark for a good performance. The party also took nearly all of its target councils, including some which had been regarded as rather ambitious targets: my previous paper describes Dudley, Cardiff and Redditch for instance as tough asks for Labour, but the party won the first two easily and the third narrowly. The only failures were Swindon (where the Conservatives retained a 1-seat majority despite Labour polling more votes) and the always peculiar West Midlands borough of Walsall.

As expected, Labour won the inaugural contests for the new mayors of Liverpool (in a landslide) and Salford (easily).

However, given the low turnout in these elections, it may be more a case of the Conservatives being in much worse shape in 2012 rather than a large positive movement to Labour. Turnout at around 32 per cent in England was poor, particularly in comparison with last year when it does appear that the AV referendum increased turnout (also significant is that the 2011 elections took place in more suburban and rural areas where turnout is higher anyway, while 2012’s elections were mostly urban). However, while it was pretty low, turnout was not as bad as it was during the first term of Blair’s government and not too much worse than years such as 1995 (which saw a big drop in turnout and a Labour landslide). In most areas, for every ten people who voted Conservative in 2011 about six did so this year, while for every ten Labour voters in 2011 there were about eight or nine this year. The net effect was a significant swing to Labour.

Looking at the local elections, another ‘hung parliament’ general election emerges as a strong possibility. A strongly regionalised swing, favouring Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the south, has interesting consequences, particularly when combined with the Liberal Democrats’ resilience in many of their stronger constituencies and the success of the SNP in Scotland. A swing to Labour will take out a few Tory remnants in the north, a swing to Tory will conquer Labour’s remaining outposts there – but these swings may well not be enough to win a Commons majority if there are 30 Lib Dems, 16 Northern Ireland MPs and perhaps 15-20 Nationalists.

The swing was less regionalised than it was in 2011, but it was still clear that Labour were doing less well in the south than in the north in terms of their recovery since 2008. Perhaps the main difference from 2011 was that the Midlands joined the North in swinging hard towards Labour, rather than joining the Tory South as it did last year. The Midlands will be the key battleground in political strategy in the next period – the Black Country marginals west of Birmingham and the smaller towns outside the metro area, and the towns and suburbs around Nottingham and Derby – will be crucial.

In general, it was another appalling year for the Lib Dems, and the hostility to the party in some areas (particularly the big cities) was just as evident as last year. The Lib Dems did worse in Liverpool, and were once again at the wrong end of a wipe-out in Manchester. In the areas where Conservatives compete with Lib Dems, honours were fairly even between the two parties, in contrast to last year when there was a strong trend to the Conservatives. The Conservatives did manage to gain Winchester from no overall control, although the Lib Dems had a swing in their favour in Portsmouth.

Local elections always demonstrate the peculiarities of some political micro-climates. The Conservatives did well to cling on in Swindon (despite Labour winning more votes), and there were a few strong Liberal Democrat showings against the national background of devastation. In Eastleigh and Watford they won landslides, and in Portsmouth they made significant gains from the Conservatives. There were even a few patches where wards that had gone Labour with a vengeance last year returned to the fold, particularly in Hull but also a few scattered outposts from Wigan to Basildon.

For the ‘other’ parties in England the results were mixed. The BNP lost all the seats it was defending and managed to field many fewer candidates than in 2008, and appears to be collapsing as a political force. The Green Party also did quite well, winning 40 seats (a net gain of 11), consolidating its position in areas of strength (Norwich, Solihull) and picking off a number of other wards where it has targeted its campaigning efforts. It may emerge, given the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the northern metropolitan areas, as the principal opposition force to local Labour control in due course.

It was quite a good election for UKIP, in that the party won 12-13 per cent of the vote where it stood. In wards where both it and the Lib Dems were standing ‘paper candidates’ (i.e. people standing to represent the party on the ballot in areas where they do not expect to win and do very little campaigning) the UKIP candidate usually got more votes. In some areas (Great Yarmouth, Dudley, Basildon) UKIP polled quite serious vote shares of over 20 per cent in many wards. However, it has not managed to target its campaigning effectively for local authority elections, in contrast to the Greens, and it made no net gains in the elections despite its strong vote. The lack of targeting seems to me to be a puzzling aspect of UKIP strategy; it would surely be in the interests of the party to prioritise gaining elected local representatives, but it seems to concentrate on building its vote share, perhaps as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives.

Wales, because every seat in 21 of the 22 councils was up for election (rather than a third of the seats, as with most of England), saw a huge turnover of seats and sweeping Labour gains, effectively reversing two sets of quite bad losses in 2004 and 2008. Overall, Labour made a net gain of 231 seats across Wales, with the Conservatives (-61), Lib Dems (-66) and Plaid Cymru (-41) all suffering losses. The most dramatic result was the Labour win in Cardiff, with a gain of 33 seats. But there were also some quite surprising Conservative losses of control of their councils in Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan, where the party has generally been on an upward trend.

 

Local elections – Scotland

Because local elections are conducted under a proportional system in Scotland, changes in seats are less dramatic but in some ways the story there is the most surprising of all. The SNP gained, but by less than some over-optimistic expectations, and so did Scottish Labour despite their drubbing in the Scottish Parliament election last year. Both parties profited from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP making a net gain of 57 and Labour of 58. In Edinburgh, where the Lib Dems had led the council since 2007, the Lib Dems dropped to three seats (and saw one of its candidates famously outpolled by a man in a penguin costume), Labour emerged as the largest party and formed a coalition with the SNP to run the city, the first Labour-SNP coalition in Scottish politics.

The SNP will be very disappointed. In many elections in the past, the SNP has ramped up expectations and believed its own hype, and seen the results come well below what was hoped. In the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 and, dramatically, 2011 this did not happen, but this old pattern has reasserted itself. The reality was that it was a moderately encouraging result for the SNP but not a breakthrough, and had it not been for the expectations and the results of the 2011 elections it would have been seen as good news for the SNP.

The importance of the elections was in the possibility that local government, collectively – with the trade unions the main non-Nationalist area of public life in Scotland – would become part of the developing SNP establishment. The SNP duly won outright control of two councils – Dundee and Angus – where this might have been expected given the SNP’s long-established strength in that part of Scotland. They fell short in other north eastern councils such as Aberdeenshire and Moray, and were cut out of a share of the administration by deals between Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Independents. The hopes of using local authorities and COSLA to support the push for independence in the forthcoming referendum came to nothing. Labour lost one council (Midlothian) it had gained because of a defection, held two (Glasgow and North Lanarkshire) and most surprisingly gained two (Renfrewshire, displacing an SNP-Lib Dem administration, and West Dunbartonshire). Labour also came out ahead in seats but without an overall majority in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen they formed a coalition with the Conservatives and Independents and in Edinburgh with the SNP.

With control only in Dundee and Angus, and the SNP locked out by surprising coalitions among the other parties in other councils (Lab-Con is the formula not only in Aberdeen but also in Stirling where the SNP did well, Inverclyde, Falkirk and even South Ayrshire where the parties have been harshly competitive), something clearly has been going on. A lot of it has to do with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The parties opposed to independence (i.e. Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and most Independents) have decided to deprive the pro-independence parties (SNP and Green) of the levers of power in local government. Local government could have been used as a way of promoting independence, and giving pro-independence SNP activists publicly funded full time positions running councils, but this will not now happen. This could be an important result of the 2012 local elections.

London

The result was more or less as expected, with Boris Johnson re-elected as Mayor and Labour dominating in the Assembly election. However, Johnson’s margin of victory was smaller than many had expected during the campaign – 3 points after distribution of second preferences rather than the 6-8 points suggested by most polls and some expectations of a bigger win for Johnson than that because of differential turnout. Johnson’s re-election had been so widely expected that it had effectively been ‘priced in’ to media assessments of the results, and the fact that it was fairly narrow was added to the evidence that the Conservatives had a bad night.

What appears to have happened is that the suburban Conservative vote, which had turned out very strongly for Johnson in 2008, was less enthusiastic this time, probably as a reflection of dissatisfaction with the central government’s performance. Labour also seems to have had, this time, a superior ‘get out the vote’ operation on the ground, perhaps particularly in strong areas like Newham and Barking & Dagenham (where anti-BNP campaigning had revitalised the party in 2010) and in Enfield and Hackney.

But it was not quite enough to get Ken Livingstone across the line. In 2000 he was vastly popular and won as an Independent, and in 2004 he was much more popular than the Labour brand, but in 2008 the electorate appeared to be getting tired of him and this was even more evident in 2012, even though his first preference vote was its highest ever. Unlike before, his popularity did not reach beyond Labour’s – and did not even extend to all of the Labour Party. There were appreciable numbers of Labour supporters who did not vote for him.

 

Labour Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 25.0 36.7 +11.7
2008 27.6 37.0 +9.4
2012 41.1 40.3 -0.8

 

Conservative Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 28.5 29.1 +0.6
2008 34.6 43.2 +8.6
2012 32.0 44.0 +12.0

 

The election will have no particularly strong influence on policy in London, with Johnson (who has been notably slow to change much that he inherited from Livingstone in 2008) now overseen by a strengthened Labour group on the Assembly,  although the Assembly’s power is so weak that it will not be much of a constraint.

The detail of the election reveals some fascinating demographic and social trends about London. Working class areas of outer London appear to be changing rapidly and becoming much more ethnically mixed – for instance in Enfield and Croydon – while a wedge of London to the south west is becoming increasingly dominated by the wealthy (Wandsworth, Wimbledon etc).

What seems to have happened to the social bases of each candidate is that Livingstone lost the liberal middle class vote he had done very well among for a Labour candidate – Hampstead, Richmond, central Ealing, Muswell Hill, Wimbledon… but recovered some ground among the outer London white working class that he had done particularly badly among in 2008.

Overall, Labour’s Assembly election results were good – but perhaps not that good. The party was 9 points ahead on the list vote, although in the General Election of 2010 Labour led by 2 points. The swing was therefore 3-4 per cent to Labour, while in general the swing in the rest of England was around 8 per cent. There are a couple of viable alternative explanations for this discrepancy:

  • Perhaps having Livingstone at the top of the ticket dragged down the Labour share in all the elections in London, while Johnson probably dragged up the Conservative list. This can work through turnout – if a Labour supporter is unenthusiastic about Livingstone, she may just fail to vote, while an unhappy Conservative may find himself reluctantly voting only because he likes Johnson.
  • Perhaps the swing to Labour in London really is less than it is outside the capital. This could be because Labour did not do as badly in London in 2010 as elsewhere, so there is less of a mountain to climb. Or it could be because of other particularities of the politics and sociology of London.

It is likely that both factors contributed a bit to the small Labour swing in London.

 

Local elections – effects

The effect of local elections on the national political environment is complex. While they are largely determined by the state of general public opinion, they have feedback effects. Governments that suffer bad results often see their position decline once the elections are over, sometimes in public opinion (as with the severe and surprising Tory losses in 1993, or Labour’s drubbing in 2008) and often in broader ‘climate’ terms.

After a bad defeat, the media become more critical, troublesome backbenchers make more and louder trouble than they have already been doing, previously loyal MPs start to murmur dissent, ministers start to fear or hope for reshuffles, and in general a bad atmosphere descends. Sometimes, as in 1993 and 1995, it degenerates into a real crisis for the government; it nearly did in 2009 as well but the anti-Brown plotters mishandled it. So far in 2012 the political effect on the government from the local elections has been fairly modest. The government is still in trouble, but it has not deepened since the ‘omnishambles’ period of March and April, and in some polls the Labour lead has subsided a bit as May has gone on. But the local elections have consolidated the new post-Budget political narrative (and reality) of a government in trouble, rather than the ‘Labour failing and Ed is hopeless’ mood with which we started 2012.

The elections are part of a pattern of events. One casualty has been the reputation of George Osborne as a political strategist, given that his budget contained one extremely provocative measure (the top rate tax cut) and a number of smaller measures that have caused a series of minor political explosions and alienated several interests (pasties, caravans, historic buildings, pensioners…) at once. There has also been, it appears, an effort to shift blame onto Osborne for this from elsewhere in government, for instance briefing that Andrew Cooper at Number 10 was not permitted to test the tax cut with public opinion, or that Osborne wanted to cut to 40p but was stopped by Cameron and Clegg. Conservative journalists have written stories suggesting that Osborne has not been working hard enough, trying to divide his time between the Treasury and political strategy and doing neither well enough, and his lack of attention led to him being ‘bounced’ by the Treasury civil servants into a number of the minor changes that have proved politically difficult. Neither has Cameron’s leadership looked very sure-footed since, with tetchy performances at PMQs and apparently ever-deeper problems with Hunt and Leveson.

The Conservative Party is in a more disenchanted condition than it has been probably since 2003; while only eccentric lone voices such as Nadine Dorries have been open with harsh criticism of Cameron, there is a murmur of unease with the direction of policy under the coalition, with Cameron’s personal performance and attitude to his MPs, and for the first time with the party’s electoral prospects. The government has been in place for two years without a reshuffle, other than emergency mini-reshuffles after the resignations of Laws and Fox, and the mood of instability, plotting and every-man-for-himself that comes with reshuffle speculation has started (although Number 10 is trying to say that the reshuffle will be in September, not before). The high votes for UKIP in a number of constituencies will have impressed some Tory MPs – UKIP at around 10% in his Bury North constituency will merely encourage rebellious right-winger David Nuttall to be even more rebellious, for instance.

The election results combined with the economic news , and the sense that the argument for austerity is starting to be lost with the ‘double-dip’ recession and the election result in France, is shifting views. The Conservative right is keen for some ‘red meat’ to give to supporters who are abstaining or voting UKIP, in the form of dropping the gay marriage proposal, confronting Europe some more and adopting the Beecroft proposals on employment law.

The Lib Dem response to another horrible set of results was fairly calm. If a person is punched in the face twice, the second punch is less shocking (even if it may end up doing more long term damage than the first blow).This has been the fourth year in a row of local election losses, and after the trauma of their worse-than-expected massacre in 2011 they were resigned to a bad result in 2012. There were some crumbs of comfort in some areas where the results were better than last year (Hull, Basildon, Wigan and others). The Lib Dems, I think, know that the die was cast in 2010 by joining the coalition on the terms they did, and that there is not a lot they can do about it now except to hope that they survive the journey to 2015 and that there is a record of achievement in government to show for it with which they can impress voters at the election.

Part of the reason for the passive response among MPs is that for many of them the local results were not bad, often appreciably better than last year. This table shows the local election results in a number of Lib Dem held seats in England where there were local elections. In some the chances of Lib Dems holding on against Labour seem very remote, but against the Conservatives in suburban England they did pretty well. Rebellious MPs Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) and Bob Russell  (Colchester) saw their local election colleagues do well, and in Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh the Lib  Dems won another landslide victory. These sorts of figures give the party some hope that where there is a functional Lib Dem local organisation, a local MP and a number of electors who have a partisan identification with the Lib Dems, survival is possible.

 

2010 general election

2012 local elections

 
 

Con

Lab

LD

Con

Lab

LD

‘Result’

‘Swing’
Manchester Withington

11

41

45

5

57

25

Lab

18% to Lab
Burnley

17

31

36

6

53

34

Lab

11% to Lab
Cheadle

41

9

47

33

17

36

LD

2% to Con
Cambridge

26

24

39

15

43

25

Lab

17% to Lab
Southport

 

36

9

50

21

20

35

LD

None
Portsmouth South

33

14

46

25

21

47

LD

5% to LD
Colchester

 

33

12

48

23

21

39

LD

1% to LD
Hazel Grove

34

13

49

27

23

42

LD

None
Sheffield Hallam

24

16

53

17

23

39

LD

11% to Lab

 

For Labour, the results have consolidated Ed Miliband’s leadership. This would have been regarded, a year to six months ago, as being a paradoxically good thing for the Conservatives! But Miliband has grown in confidence and stature during 2012 and the elections have helped him in terms of his personal confidence and in encouraging Labour to have faith in him. Labour’s mood has, sensibly, been of satisfaction rather than complacency and the party tried hard to take a humble tone after the election results. But with a solid election win, a sense that the party’s arguments about economic policy are being vindicated and at last gaining some traction, and a party organisation whose greater efficiency was shown in its campaigning this year, Labour is in a better mood than it has been probably since autumn 2007.

Last but not least in importance, the election results in Scotland were the first dent in Alex Salmond’s armour for a long time; Scottish councils are unlikely to be used as forward bases to push for independence, and we are back to close rivalry of Labour and SNP rather than SNP domination. The launch of the Yes campaign for the independence referendum (25 May), after the local elections, did not seem part of a triumphant progress towards the SNP’s goal.

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