Surrey and its boroughs have long been a ‘flip-flop’ between Conservatives and Liberals (Labour doesn’t get much of a look-in), but the recent local elections have indicated a change of heart, big time. With apologies to the writers (Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) and the singer Connie Francis of the 1958 hit ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, I’ve hijacked the title, as my corruption of this title to ‘Who’s “Surrey” now?’ seems relevant. The leafy suburbs of Surrey have become a bloody battleground for both local and national politics with larger implications for the next General Election – maybe sometime in 2024.
Liberal-Democrat gains: a ‘poisoned chalice’ … maybe …
A couple of examples:
Woking: won by an independent candidate with a large majority vote. 1,656 votes from a turnout of 32% but with a huge financial challenge to face.
Woking has a massive issue to resolve.
The council has invested heavily in debt, according to The Guardian, 26 May 2023:
“The council will have debts of £2.4bn by 2026, the review revealed, 100 times the size of its annual £24m budget and making it England’s most indebted council relative to its size with a notional debt of £19,000 a head for each of its residents.”
Three ‘experts’ have been appointed by the Government to scrutinise Woking Council’s debt issues. The LibDems only gained some 312 votes, so have no real power there.
Croydon Council has been declared bankrupt twice in the last three years, so what future for that ‘London’ borough?
Elmbridge in Surrey: no overall control despite LibDems being the largest party with 38.9% of votes cast but not quite enough to gain control. So, no big changes there, so nothing radical to be reported.
But Elmbridge is a large Council within the Conservative constituency of Esher and Walton, which is under threat from the LibDems (a ‘Target Seat’ for them, apparently) since the recently announced departure of the Rt Hon. Dominic Raab MP who will not stand at the next General Election, and whose successor will face the increasingly popular Liberal-Democrat prospective candidate, Monica Harding (who only lost by slightly more than 2,000 votes last time).
Raab managed to turn around a previously safe seat from a majority of more than 20,000 or so votes to not much more than 2,000 since his public declaration of ‘Brexit’ (amply demonstrated by walking out of PM Theresa May’s Cabinet), despite a local majority in favour of ‘Remain’ (what price democratic representation by a local MP?). So, his successor, who is a ‘Brexiter’, will probably face an uphill struggle.
What does this mean for the next General Election?
The swing maybe…
In 2020, the Liberal Democrats gained some 25% of the National vote (some 47 million registered UK voters), leading eventually to 11 MPs.
The Scottish National Party gained 48 seats in Westminster, representing some 4.26 million registered voters in Scotland, almost 10% of the last national figure noted by the Electoral Commission in 2020 of 47 million voters.
There are 650 MPs in Westminster of which 11 are Liberal Democrats – ie 2% of the Commons. The SNP have 45 MPs – 7% of the Commons.
A truly representative Parliament would look very different to what exists now, but there is no appetite for a change to proportional representation by either of the two parties – Conservative or Labour – as the ‘first-past-the-post’ system suits them well in terms of Parliamentary control.
Psephologists can examine the recent local elections and make predictions for the next General Election and may conclude that Labour might gain some 48 seats in 2024, some of them in the south east. But this would not give Labour a ruling majority in the Commons. A coalition or cross-party treaty would be necessary to pass disputed legislation. The price for that looks high – the Liberal Democrats probably demanding an Act to enforce proportional representation and the Scottish National Party demanding a new referendum on Independence for Scotland.
Neither, by all accounts, looks likely.
So, what impact has this, for instance, in leafy old Surrey? It may prove pivotal next time we vote for a government…
There are some 856,000 registered voters in the Surrey constituencies of East Ewell, Esher and Walton, Epsom and Ewell, Guildford, Mole Valley, Reigate, Runnymede and Weybridge, Southwest Surrey, Spelthorne, Surrey Heath, and Woking.
Most voters in these constituencies voted Conservative in the last General Election, helping to sweep Boris Johnson into Number 10. But, in the recent Local Elections, there was a swing towards the Liberal Democrats, notably in Woking where local council overall control was ceded to the LibDems and, for example, in Elmbridge (which lies within the Esher and Walton constituency represented by the outgoing MP Dominic Raab) where the LibDems have the largest number of Councillors (although not quite enough for overall control).
A word or two of unbiased caution to cosy Conservative south-east voters.
Watch out Esher and Walton! The Right Honourable Dominic Raab is stepping down, leaving his successor prospective MP to turn around his vastly reduced majority of just over 2,700 votes (he lost almost 20,000 votes over ‘Brexit’ in the last General Election). So, maybe another LibDem seat in the offing?
A bit of caution is needed as well in Guildford with barely more than 3,000 votes in favour of the Conservatives.
And, now for the current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who has surely to look over his shoulder at a relatively slim majority in Southwest Surrey of some 8,800 votes in a constituency of nearly 90,000. A small swing might see him out of that swinging door.
As frequently reported, local voters have based their decisions on both local and national issues and this has been reflected in the shift of voter preferences, influenced by problems such as the economy, health, and education, to name but a few (not just ULEZ or potholes) in the Southeast, towards the Liberal Democrats. It will be even more so, on national issues, when it comes to a General Election.
So, watch out for that “swingometer” next time around (let’s hope Peter Snow drags himself out of retirement to demonstrate it as ‘Big Bob’ MacKenzie used to), as we may see Surrey and other ‘blue’ regions fall into political oblivion and be pivotal to the final result.
Not just “Who’s ‘Surrey’ Now?”, but maybe ‘ “Surrey” Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ (apologies to Bernie and Elton).