It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of different local elections from Plymouth to Bury as well as in London.
They did well enough to wrest control of a larger haul of councils than they can have hoped for. Conservative satisfaction must be all the greater because of the uncanny symmetry with which their gains mirror Labour’s losses.
In the last few rounds of local elections Labour have tended to slip back, but the spoils have been shared between the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and a variety of minor parties and independents. Labour’s losses are a little less than what I predicted before the elections, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-à-vis the Lib Dems in the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.
While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004. Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002 and in some areas where Labour took a terrible beating (like Bexley) the increase was above average.
The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006. A scary result for Labour outside London was the runaway success of the Conservatives in the borough elections in Swindon, a town with two close-fought marginal parliamentary seats.
But the London suburbs were the most dramatic illustration of the trend. Harrow has been a close fight in the last couple of borough elections, but the Conservatives won by miles this year. In Ealing, Labour’s most shocking loss, there was a 10 per cent swing to the Conservatives, who regained control of a borough some had privately believed to be beyond them permanently thanks to demographic change.
This was even bigger than the 8.5% swing in the thoroughly anticipated Conservative gain in the gentrifying borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Ealing topped their four gains from Labour and three from no overall control (for the loss only of Richmond to the Lib Dems) to put the Tories in control of exactly half the London boroughs, not quite where they were in their last good London borough election year in 1982.
Back in the 1980s when Labour’s image was poor in London and the party had trouble winning elections, Labour’s local authorities contributed a lot to the damage. It was not so much the well-advertised and often entirely fictional ‘loony left’ excesses, but the general feeling that Labour was not capable of running a local authority efficiently and in the interests of local residents. High local taxes and poor services were not an attractive mix and the national party leadership was keen to distance itself from the boroughs.
Patricia Hewitt, in her capacity as one of Neil Kinnock’s senior advisers, wrote in 1987 that London local government’s policies “were costing us dear among the pensioners”. This must have raised a bitter smile from a few dispossessed London Labour councillors today. In this campaign, Labour’s borough councils felt rather proud of their record, and were brought low by the sorry display put on by the national government.
While Labour weren’t on course for a triumph before the government fell into disarray, it may well have made the difference between holding on and losing in Merton and possibly Croydon, and dashed any chance of a surprise pick-up in Enfield.
While suburban London politics is reasonably straightforward, the politics of inner city London is contradictory and complex. Voters in some authorities such as Lambeth and Islington seem to be short of patience – in Lambeth Labour felt surprised and rather hurt to lose control in 2002, only for their Lib Dem successors to feel the same now. Camden, and more surprisingly Lewisham, chucked out reasonably successful Labour authorities. One of the small band of Lib Dems previously on the council in Lewisham is Councillor Harry Potter, but Labour had obviously missed a lesson or two in Defence Against the Dark (Electioneering) Arts.
In Tower Hamlets there was a most peculiar result, with Labour (subject to recounts) looking on course to retain control having lost seats to the Conservatives and Respect, and picked them up from the Lib Dems. Results from Hackney are slow in arriving, but it is a borough that has produced more than its share of weird results in the past. The Green Party is becoming established in parts of inner London, particularly Lewisham where Darren Johnson, their only councillor in 2002, is joined by five colleagues. Less obvious is the steady 10 per cent or more of the vote Green candidates polled across boroughs such as Camden and Lambeth.
The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. In its stamping grounds of a few years ago, Burnley and Oldham, it has faded away (after considerable anti-fascist campaigning by opponents), while it has flared up in Barking & Dagenham and West Yorkshire more recently. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors.
Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The final collapse of the Liberals as a party of government in the first quarter of the 20th Century started in local elections. The continuing decay of the party system is most apparent in some florid examples in local government. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again (as it did in 2004) refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25 per cent – its politics is a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. Its wards have delivered surprise after surprise as the votes have been counted, with hardly any local politician resting securely.
An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate in one ward, making Kirklees a six-party system. Hospital campaigners also got elected in some hitherto safe Conservative wards in Enfield and the appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing.
The Liberal Democrats have carved out a niche in politics as the party par excellence of local government, but the 2006 results put this into question. In previous rounds of local elections they have tended to outperform uniform swing and most people’s expectations before the result, but this time they have fallen short (despite their high share of the vote). They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power (or had recently held power) they tended to do badly. With the Conservatives apparently restored to acceptability as an alternative for voters cross with Labour, the Lib Dems must show more dynamism and strategic vision.
The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Conservatives gaining in their suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its most traditional areas of support. It is perhaps not surprising that a civilised west London liberal Tory like Cameron struck a chord in a swathe of metropolitan suburbia, but did little for his party in earthier parts of England like Gosport or Thurrock.
Perhaps the 2009 election will resemble the patterns of 1992 or 1974 more than it does the rather classless electoral landscape of 2001. But despite the Conservatives’ promising results last night, there is no sign that the electorate has any nostalgia for two party politics, and even three party politics now seems distinctly passé. The electorate seems volatile, grumpy and unconvinced, but has given Cameron more cause for encouragement than it ever did for his three luckless predecessors.