The first week of May was a busy week. Councils in England were preparing for an election on Thursday 4 May, with counting taking place on the 5 May, and the Coronation of Charles III was scheduled for Saturday 6 May. In most of Kent, the hitherto unconquerable heartland of conservatism, local government changed to NOC (no overall control).
This means that conservatives are not the majority party but have to negotiate pacts with other parties or groups of councillors if they want their policies and budget choices to prevail. But other parties may also form pacts to roll back those policies and set new priorities.
The political map of Kent by the evening of 5 May (BBC)
The Conservative party prior to the election tried to lower expectations, by saying that they thought that they would lose as many as 1,000 councillors nationally in the election. In the event, those losses exceeded 1,000 (1,063: Source BBC). The Conservatives may have hoped that the wrath of the electorate had ebbed after the mini budget which caused great financial instability, and ended in the resignations of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister.
Perhaps polling evidence had given the Conservatives cause for optimism to expect only moderate losses, and perhaps even an improvement because of the poor election results that both the Conservatives and Labour received in May 2019.
The Conservatives’ manifesto was based on five points:
- Halve Inflation;
- Grow the economy;
- Reduce debt;
- Cut NHS waiting lists; and
- Stop the boats.
But were these also the priorities of the electors? YouGov polling evidence affirmed support for some of these aspirations, but perhaps not as strongly as was thought.
Planning and sewage
Other issues such as planning and sewage also played a part (BBC.co.uk). On sewage, the apology from water companies did not placate the public, especially with the suggestion that the public must pay for the clean-up. So this did not help candidates from the ruling party responding to an issue of public concern.
Planning has been a hot topic in the shires for sometime, again to the detriment of Central Government, who have imposed housing targets, and then rowed back on compulsion after a series of by-election defeats and successive poor local government elections.
Labour gains Medway
Labour meanwhile, has been cock-a-hoop, especially with the victory in Medway. Their public statement after the election suggested that they are on course to win an outright majority at the next general election, but psephologists analysing the results beg to differ.
LibDem and Green take the south
Looking at the national picture, the Liberal Democrats did well in gaining 407 seats in England and taking Councils in the South and South West. The Greens also made solid progress in winning their first Council at Mid Suffolk but, in return, they lost seats in Brighton giving control to Labour. In Kent, the Greens became the largest party in Folkestone, pushing out the former leader, and reducing the Conservatives to third place.
As always, there were outlier results due to local issues, with large Conservative gains in Leicester, and the complete wipeout of the Conservative party in Lewes. In Kent, the drift away from the Conservatives may have been less marked in most places because 2019 was such a poor year for them, but Folkestone and Medway were bad results by any standards. In truth, a change in a relatively few seats, either gave control to Labour or created a ‘no overall control’ situation in much of Kent.
The dust is now settling, and councils in Kent will have new administrations taking up the reins. Some will be coalitions of the centre left, and it is possible that others under no overall control may still be run by their former incumbents, making a temporary pact with, say, Independents, in order to push through the budget.
Maintaining an administration under no overall control is not easy, and relies on diplomacy and reducing losses or defections. Some former incumbents might find that situation exceedingly difficult to manage, as it is not something they will have experienced before. Morale and momentum will be factors, as defeated parties tend to turn inwards before facing the future.
Growth in tactical voting
Prior to the election there was much said about tactical voting and in part it appears to have worked as those councils who were targeted as being vulnerable to tactical voting either fell to opposition parties or to no overall control, an exception being Basildon which the Conservatives held. Tactical voting is a great deal more sophisticated nowadays, and there are websites giving advice to would-be tactical voters. Whether this will grow as a phenomenon in a general election is not clear.
Voter ID was another topic which caused debate. Voter fraud is a rare phenomenon. In 2019, over three elections and 58m ballots cast, there was only one conviction for personation. There appears to be a mismatch between what is ID and what is not. A nurse ID for the NHS is not accepted, but an OAP bus pass is accepted.
Voter ID appears to be an expensive hammer to crack a very small nut, and should be reviewed in order to maximise votes and not to suppress them. It is important in a democracy to make it as simple and safe to vote within a secure system and not to differentiate between groups of voters.
Shortage of willing candidates
Loss of Councillors is a byproduct of an election and, where long term incumbents are involved, the loss of experienced councillors might be a serious long term loss both to the party concerned, and the community. Being a councillor requires a long term and significant time commitment. This often means that those with more personal time available such as the retired are the natural recruits.
Most of the parties do struggle to fill their candidate lists, and those who lost this time may not return to the fray in 2027. New recruits will be found, but will there be enough, or will there be a similar shortage of councillors comparable to that of lorry drivers and fruit pickers? Time will tell.
Plus ça change…
Amongst all the triumph and tragedy of elections, when the ballyhoo dies down councils will be faced with the same problems as their predecessors. These are, long term, sustained underfunding, a backlog of repairs etc, a crisis in planning, housing, climate change, and inflation. Council tax was never popular, and raising it while reducing services makes it even less popular.
Against all these negatives is the hope that new administrations will innovate, having shaken up the system. This may be a faint hope, but one never knows. Innovation can only go so far, and Kent may have to face up to its financial demons and reform the structure of local government in a more logical manner. Is the archaic three-tier system of local government fit for purpose?
What can we conclude from the results of these elections?
In some ways it was not a surprising outcome. There was an unpopular government, the economy is not doing well, there are a lot of crises all happening at the same time, and the Government is somewhat divided. So what should each party take away from the elections?
For the Conservatives perhaps a period of reflection; but, if they are to win a general election, they will need to remain unified, as the public don’t respond well to divided parties.
Labour believes it is on course to win a general election but, as has been said, the election results were good but maybe not good enough to achieve a majority at the next general election. Governments tend to lose elections, rather than oppositions win them.
The Liberal Democrats and Greens did poll well, but will this be carried forward in the general election? What tends to happen in a general election is that it reverts to a two-party race, but it is possible that the country might opt for more diversity at the next general election.
Will NOC mean collaboration?
The problems of local government have not gone away, and simply changing administrations won’t necessarily mean change, but perhaps fresh eyes and new thinking will alter policymaking at government level in the next few years. Some of the new administrations will thrive, others will fail, and no overall control can mean just that. But hopefully most no overall control councils will adopt a collegiate method of administration, will share out power, and will work together in the public interest in a positive way.