WATCH: The Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems declines to rule out an electoral pact with Labour

26 Jun

The post WATCH: The Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems declines to rule out an electoral pact with Labour appeared first on Conservative Home.

Local elections – how the results measured up with our predictions

12 May

While the council election results last week were mixed, there is no denyng that, overall, the Conservatives were in retreat. There were substantial losses in Wales and Scotland – which was pretty much inevitable as those seats had last been contested in 2017 – which was a very good year for the Conservatives in the local elections. For England, the comparison was mostly with 2018 when the contest was more even between Labour and the Conservatives. Most of the contests took place on Labour territory. But it was possible to extrapolate a projected national vote share. In 2018 the Conservatives were one point ahead. This time Labour came in two points ahead. They were on 35 per cent, with the Conservatives on 33 per cent according to the calculations by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher for the Sunday Times.

Labour’s lead in vote share was a few points below their lead in most recent opinion polls. Usually, Labour’s local election vote is a bit below their opinion poll ratings at the time. By contrast, the Lib Dems tend to do better in their local elections vote share than in the opinion polls – the Sunday Times analysis had them on 17 per cent, while the opinion polls have them on 12 per cent or below.

So in that sense, Labour’s vote share met reasonable expectations. Talk of devastation for the Conservatives from some pundits a few weeks ago rested on the assumption that Labour would have an opinion lead well into double figures.

The more relevant test looks at historic comparisons of how well an opposition party should be doing mid-term if it expects to win the next General Election. Mark Pack has produced a useful summary of past local election results. In the 2009 local elections, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by 15 points on projected national vote share. Under Ed Miliband’s leadership in 2013 Labour was nine points ahead in projected national vote share in the local elections. We didn’t have a calculation of projected national vote share for 2000 but under William Hague’s leadership the Conservatives had pretty good results and would probably have been several points ahead if such a calculation had been made.

A rule of thumb is an opposition party should have a lead of well into double figures in projected national vote share in the local elections a year or two years before a General Election to really be “on course for victory” when that General Election comes.

Next the measure of the number of councillors. The Conservatives made net losses of 336 seats in England – plus 86 in Wales and 63 in Scotland. But these seats went all over the place. Labour’s net gains were much smaller than the Conservative net losses. So that means that my prediction that the Conservatives would still be the largest party of local government in the UK was proved correct. Given the significant lead the Conservatives have, it was a pretty safe prediction – it would have meant a wipeout for it to be otherwise. Yet after 12 years in power natonally it remains a notable achievement.

Beneath the surface of these figures, there was significant variation. In London we saw Labour gain Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminister – but lose Croydon, Harrow and Tower Hamlets. So they ended up running the same number of boroughs as before. I predicted that Labour would “not make overall progress in London” and so it has proved. I said there was a “decent chance” of the Conservatives gaining Harrow. Also that Enfield “is a borough where the Conservatives might well gain some seats – although probably not enough to sweep to victory.” I highlighted Labour’s poor record in Croydon. But my report of “optimism” that the Conservatives would gain Sutton from the Lib Dems and my declaration of being “sceptical” that Westminster would be lost did not age as well.

I said the Green Party would make “solid but modest progress.” That was about right. They ended up gaining 63 seats in England.

With the district councils I’m afraid my fears came true that the Conservatives could be in trouble from independents in Castle Point, the Lib Dems in Gosport, and from Labour in increasingly woke Worthing. More encouraging was that Labour missed two of the key tests highlighted for them – to make progress in Nuneaton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. They lost ground in both places.

Looking at towns and cities, I warned the Conservatives “will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival” in Somerset and Wokingham, which transpired.  I suggested that while Labour “may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains”. That was broadly fair. But their decisive victory in the new Council of Cumberland was an important result I did not anticipate. I thought Labour would “do well” in Wakefield which they did. However, they lost a couple of seats in Birmingham. They gained a couple in Derby and a couple in Dudley. In Peterborough they made no gains, in Bury only one. These were places I highlighted as key contests in terms of General Election implications where Labour needed to be making really strong gains.

Not too bad. I suppose I would give myself seven out of ten.

These results have not produced the fresh impetus to challenge Boris Johnson’s leadership that some expected. Tory morale will certainly have taken a jolt. The defeat in Wandsworth on it’s own was enough to ensure that, given it has been an iconic success story. Elsewhere, even the modest overall setback will be discouraging for Conservatives who have got used to make advances. Those of us who remember the John Major era will be thankful they went as well as they did.

William Hall: Oxfordshire County Council’s switch to vegan catering is typical of muddled Lib Dem gesture politics

29 Apr

William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.

Councils do far more than many people give them credit for. The day-to-day life experience of many citizens is heavily influenced by how effective the local authority is. Regular bin collections help keep streets tidy and clean. An effective housing department will put a roof over people’s heads. Well-maintained roads are a daily essential. Critically, adult social care allows people to live independently for longer.

For many people, their closest daily experience of the effect of political dynamics is about how effectively their local authority delivers its core responsibilities. However, instead of focussing on this, increasingly, many Councillors are spending their time proposing motions on subjects removed from the Council’s responsibilities with the intention of a quick press release.

A newly elected set of councillors taking charge of a local authority have only so much bandwidth to achieve their priority goals. The challenging and important objectives of delivering excellent key services with value for money often get ignored for the easy to reach, meaningless political gesture politics of the student union.

In Oxfordshire, our Lib Dem-led County Council has been making headlines recently by adopting a policy of having only vegan food served at their meetings.

Understandably, local farmers objected to what they viewed as a needless attack. A protest was held, and the Council spent considerable time and energy on defending their position.

The reality is that the motion only relates to the food the councillors themselves get at the expense of the taxpayer – they clearly shouldn’t get a free lunch, but that’s another discussion. The Council has absolutely no competency to force anyone else to eat a certain way. Particularly ridiculous was the fact that the “environmentally friendly” spread included imported fruit such as melon, mango, and kiwi.

So, at a time when roads are crumbling and communities need support, the Council is spending its time and energy on virtue signalling. In one fell swoop, an entire community of farmers, butchers, and small businesses, have been alienated from their local representation for nothing more than a gesture by the Council.

If I were a Green Party Councillor in Oxfordshire, I would be kicking my sandals in disgust at how an important environmental debate has been side-lined by an attempt to grab a quick headline by the administration.

The waste of political capital alone is bad enough, but it also costs taxpayers money. Local authorities in England collectively spent £106 billion last year – a big slice of state spending and in many areas Council Tax continues to rise. While local authorities spend most of this on ringfenced education services, and adult and children’s social care, that leaves a considerable amount of taxpayer’s money that is discretionary.

In my own time as the Finance Cabinet member for a local authority, we focused our financial measures on the absolutely core services that made a difference – areas like planning enforcement, bin collection, and those small but critical grants that keep local community groups going. We also managed to deliver one of the biggest Council tax cuts in the country. All of these measures required significant political will to overcome officers’ desire for incremental, rather than transformational, change.

We did all this because we recognised that delivery matters more than gestures. It would have been impossible to have done so, had we opened up multiple lines of policy reform based on short term PR rather than securing a strategic transformation based on the plan we were elected on.

Next month, much of the country will decide on its next crop of local Councillors. In England, some 4,360 seats are up for election. It is crucial that in doing so we get a good cadre of hard-working local representatives who are willing to tackle the complex issues and not just the popular ones.

If all our councillors spent their time writing press releases about how worthy they are, then who would be left to drive forward those much-needed reforms to vital services?

Joseph Baum: Pavement politics is how the Conservatives will beat the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham

25 Jan

Cllr Joseph Baum a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, if you are a Conservative activist the following sentence will almost certainly apply: the person knocking on the door cares more about politics than the person answering it.

For many readers of ConservativeHome – myself included – following the twists and turns of our political system is simply a part of our routine. But for the millions of residents out in the country who simply do not have the time or the patience to keep up, what goes on within the “Westminster bubble” is a world away from what’s actually happening in their community and what needs to happen for it to thrive. Yes, there will be the occasional story that “cuts through” but for every story emanating from Downing Street there are dozens of local issues that need attention on every street.

Whether it’s mending a broken drain or installing a new bin on a public footpath, many of the problems that affect people on a daily basis can, and are being, dealt with by local Conservative councillors.

For us in local government, the satisfaction of knowing that you got something done is why we stood in the first place. But it is particularly important here in Chesham and Amersham, which has been under new parliamentary management since June. In my last article, written in the immediate aftermath of the by-election, I said that we needed to acknowledge why we lost whilst at the same time recognising that all is not lost.

Although the work of rebuilding our Association is still very much in progress, the task of delivering for local people has never, and can never stop. Having lost our voice at Westminster, I am pleased to say that in just six months Buckinghamshire Council has made some significant progress on issues that really matter to residents.

It wasn’t our MP who approved further and much needed investment in our roads, taking the total to more than £100 million over the next four years. It wasn’t our MP who promised, and is on track to deliver on a manifesto commitment to unblock every drain and gully in the county – a herculean effort made possible by Conservative investment.

Interested in sport? In December the brand new Chilterns Lifestyle Centre in Amersham opened its doors to the public. Improvements to the Chalfont Leisure Centre were also delivered as planned earlier this year. And for all the talk of protecting our green belt, it wasn’t our MP who stood up to defend it when a Planning Application to build almost 400 homes was recently submitted to the local Council.

A strategy to improve our bus network, a county wide effort to plants thousands of new trees, a zero-tolerance policy on fly tipping which is now leading to successful prosecutions, the first ever Buckinghamshire Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair which will bring together some of the UK’s biggest employers to our community to showcase their vacancies, a Local Plan in Aylesbury which will result in a net increase in green belt, millions distributed to local businesses who are desperate to bounce back from the pandemic, or a Helping Hand scheme which is supporting some of our most vulnerable in society – the list goes on.

Whilst it will never be as glamorous as a free trade agreement with Australia or a climate change summit in Glasgow, you can be sure that these are the issues that matters to local people.

Delivering for local people can only part of the effort. At every turn we have made sure that residents should be in no doubt over who is responsible for these achievements. Since the by-election we have held six Action Days across the Association – held on the first Saturday of every month. We have surveyed, canvassed, delivered leaflets and even telephone canvassed. We have reached out to our membership base once again and looked to re-invigorate our branches. In the two major town of Chesham and Amersham, our Town Councillors have held monthly face to face surgeries in the library and street stalls on the High Street. Almost all of our councillors now have active Facebook pages, enabling residents to communicate with their local councillor and to receive updates about what they are doing. Ask a resident at random in the constituency and the chances are that they have seen or heard from the Conservatives since the by-election.

Whilst the task of rebuilding will not be complete until we take back Chesham and Amersham, the solution lies in what Conservatives do best – working hard, deliver for local people and campaigning to win.

Tom Drummond: It’s time for change in Sutton

30 Dec

Cllr Tom Drummond is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Sutton Council

Sutton is a leafy green borough on the outskirts of greater London; a borough where the Lib Dems have been running the council since 1986. When I moved here in 2006, my Conservative voting neighbour told me, “I always vote Tory, but locally I’m Lib Dem, they do a good job.” This was the message that was instilled and accepted by both old and new residents.

Then came a change; cracks began to show in the council. The Lib Dems had stopped listening to residents, complacency had set in, and they began to follow and promote their own ideology against the wishes of residents.

One of the many cracks that appeared was in 2015 when the council chose to sell a long lease on a historic building for £600,000; the price was circa £1m below the market valuation. If things couldn’t get worse, they had sold the building to a charity whose director and trustee was the then sitting Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington. This type of laissez faire attitude with the council’s assets began to make residents question, could things be better? And that has been our task ever since – to show them it could be.

It was soon after this that the green shoots of recovery for the Conservatives began to come through. In 2015, Paul Scully became the first Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam since 1997.

By the time of the local elections in 2018, the Liberal Democrats were defending their policy on bin collections. For the first time, residents were expressing their anger on social media with #Suttonbinshame trending nationally. We had a successful night, bucking the trend in London by increasing councillors from eight to 18. However, this does not tell the full story; there were a number of wards where we lost out by single digits – and overall in the borough, we missed taking control by two per cent.

The Conservative march has continued and in 2019 the long standing Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Tom Brake, was unseated by Elliot Colburn. Then in the 2021 London Assembly elections, Neil Garatt, for the first time, won every single ward in the borough.

Looking forward to May 2022, there is a feeling that change is needed. The extra scrutiny provided by the increase in the 2018 Conservative Group has meant the cracks that appeared in 2015 are now gaping chasms of incompetence. The Lib Dems have reacted to this; however their own agenda still dominates their decisions at the expense of residents’ wishes.

It has long been said, the Sutton Liberal Democrats “Consult, Consider and Ignore” – and this is evidenced in recent consultations for controlled parking measures. In my ward, Worcester Park, 93 per cent of residents in the statutory consultation objected to a Controlled Parking Zone being implemented (736 against versus 67 for).  The Lib Dems refused to listen and went ahead with the parking restrictions. This became a theme as they consulted across the borough on parking, school streets, and LTNs. The consultations have been biased and manipulated to give the result they want rather than what residents are telling them.

Another example of the gross incompetence surrounds SDEN (Sutton Decentralised Energy Network); a Council owned company providing heating and hot water to a ward in the borough. Since its inception, there have been question marks over the financial modelling. As a result of a Conservative group motion at Full Council, an independent investigation was commissioned. The conclusions were damning: 80 houses that were not built (or even planned) were used in the financial modelling. A Government grant that was no longer available was also included in the business plan. The investigation found there had been “optimism bias”, which was described in the aftermath by the deputy leader as the council being a “little bit over optimistic.” This has cost the Sutton taxpayer millions of pounds.

So, five months from the election, is Sutton a foregone conclusion in 2022? Sadly the answer is no. The Lib Dems see this as the crown jewel of their London councils. I’m in no doubt that resources will be called in from neighbouring boroughs and the local party will do anything and everything they can to retain control.

In recent elections we’ve experienced how low the Lib Dem’s will go to win. Dirty tricks do not describe the depths they stooped to in 2019, defaming a long-standing councillor. I fully expect them to revert to this type of electioneering again;  we’re already seeing the personal attacks, negative campaigning, and I’m in no doubt that highly questionable tactics are planned.  As I’ve been told many times, “the Sutton Lib Dems are bad at running councils but good at winning elections.”

So do I feel confident? Yes. Are we getting a positive reception on the door? Yes. Is complacency going to set in? Absolutely not! Sutton needs change which the local Tories can give. In the run up to May, we will campaign as hard as ever and ensure Sutton has two Conservatives MPs, one Conservative GLA member, and finally, after decades, a Conservative run council.

Local elections in depth: The Green Belt is an electoral noose for the Conservatives in St Albans

15 Dec

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: St Albans

Control: Lib Dems

Numbers: Lib Dems 30, Conservatives 23, Independents 2, Labour 2, Green Party 1.

Change since last local elections:  Lib Dems +5, Labour -3, Conservatives -1, Independents -1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: St Albans is a cathedral city in Hertfordshire. During the Roman occupation, it was known as Verulamium, the second-largest settlement after Londinium. However, there were some boundary changes and redevelopment schemes after 60 AD when the original settlement was destroyed by Boadicea and her Iceni tribe. At a meeting in St Albans on August 4th 1213, the Magna Carta was drafted. St Albans City and District Council was formed in 1974. Until the 1990s it was mostly under Conservative control. Then the Lib Dems tended to have the upper hand. Though from 2015 to 2019 it was back with a Conservative overall majority. In 2019 it went to “no overall control”. Then in May, the gains made by the Lib Dems gave them an overall majority.

At the last General Election, the Lib Dems gained the St Albans constituency. Former MPs include – Peter Lilley, who in 1992 had a majority of over 16,000. (Before Lilley the seat was held by Sir Victor Goodhew for the Conservatives, usually with comfortable majorities in successive elections.)  Labour gained the seat in 1997 and held on until 2005 when Anne Main won it back for the Conservatives. But it should be noted that in 1997 a new constituency was created, Hitchin and Harpenden, which included several St Albans wards. The seat was held by Lilley until he stood down in 2017. Since then the Conservative MP has been Bim Afolami. But proposed boundary changes mean it will cease to exist.

The Lib Dems have never won the St Albans Parliamentary seat before 2019 – perhaps surprisingly given their better fortunes in the council elections, However, Jacob Bell, the Whig candidate, did defeat a Conservative in a by-election in 1850. The borough was then disenfranchised after a Royal Commission found proof of extensive bribery which is how it became part of Hertfordshire.

Results: Residents of St Albans voted Remain in the EU referendum by almost two to one. As so often, that vote is an important starting point in understanding what has happened since in political developments. Linked to that has been the Lib Dems managing to establish themselves as the clear alternative to the Conservatives here. Hitherto, opposition to the Conservatives was more evenly divided between Labour and the Lib Dems.

Since the M25 was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, house prices in St Albans have risen even more sharply than elsewhere. There is something of a divide between the city centre and the suburbs. Younger public sector professionals live in the centre – often commuting into London. They are well paid – but usually not sufficiently well paid to be able to buy. The Lib Dems have championed the al fresco dining cohort with pedestrianisation schemes. The Conservatives have complained about traffic being dispersed elsewhere and raised the plight of small businesses and white van man.

When it comes to development there is less of a divide. They are all Nimbys. In any case, almost all of St Albans comes under the Green Belt. The Council’s website includes the proud boast:

“The current adopted Local Plan is The District Local Plan Review 1994.”

Not very “current”, is it? 1994 was the year the National Lottery was launched and Four Weddings and a Funeral was the hot new release in the cinema.

Residents may feel that the failure to adopt anything more recent is a sign of anti-development cred. The Green Belt constraints would apply anyway but they do allow development under some circumstances – “infill”, brownfield sites, developments that include “affordable” housing. Not having a Local Plan makes it easier for developers to push it through – if necessary on appeal. But these intricacies are likely to be lost on the electorate.

What of future Conservative prospects? There is a significant Bangladeshi community in St Albans which Labour has traditionally taken for granted. Might that change? As Brexit becomes a settled reality perhaps the anger over that issue may subside and an aspirational, tax-cutting agenda might start to woo liberal urbanite voters (assuming the Conservatives were to adopt such an agenda at some stage).

But housing is probably the key. Supposing the Green Belt rules were changed to give presumption to allow development on unattractive, derelict and contaminated land if environmental gains were offered? That with a hundred acres of wasteland, a developer was allowed to build (traditional) housing on half of it while providing a park on the other half?

Much of St Albans is beautiful – including the Cathedral, of course. But not all of it is. Is St Albans Magistrates Court beautiful? It is not. Suppose it is was knocked down and replaced with neo-classical housing. Then an elegant new Court built on some unloved piece of scuzzy wasteland. Would there really be a conservationist backlash? Surely the City’s pride would be enhanced. Would not the committee of the St Albans Civic Society dance a jig in celebration? Yet under my (admittedly fallible) understanding of the National Planning Policy Framework such an outcome would be illegal, due to Green Belt restrictions.

Does anyone lament the demise of the BHS building in St Peter’s Street? They do not. It is ugly development that is the source of grievance. We should have the flexibility to reverse some of the mistakes of earlier decades.

I understand the most enlightened liberalisation of planning rules will prompt cynicism. But in its present form, the Green Belt is an electoral noose for the Conservatives in places like St Albans. It could be changed in such a way that both conservationists and Generation Rent would applaud.


Selaine Saxby: Lib Dem-run North Devon Council declared a “climate emergency” in 2019. But has failed to do anything.

20 Aug

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emergency” as “something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results.”

So why have so many local councils declared a Climate Emergency, which amounts to little more than a statement on their website? A Freedom of Information (FOI) request did not get me very far, with my local Liberal Democrat District Council merely saying:

“The Council’s Sustainability and Climate Officer for both North Devon Council and Torridge District Council confirms that they are currently working on a Carbon Action Plan for North Devon, therefore at this time the Council does not have one in place.”

This is the same Liberal Democrat council that declared a Climate Emergency in June 2019. As a councillor since May 2019, I remember the meeting well. I registered my own concerns at the time, and that as a good first step, maybe the air conditioning could be turned down.

Furthermore, our flag-waving Lib Dems have failed to reduce their own carbon emissions, failed to reduce their own energy consumption, failed to provide any incentives for electric cars, and failed to switch any of their fleet vehicles to electric.

I appreciate that our hardworking council officers have been very busy with the pandemic, and the staff have really done a fantastic job, but you would hope that the “Lead Councillor” responsible for the environment could have seen a way to at least install some solar panels.

Emergencies and crises by their very names invoke something of a helplessness in many as it seems to be someone else’s problem. But if we are to address climate change and achieve net zero, there is a need for everyone to feel they can take action now, and not wait for another unhelpful “plan”.

The pandemic taught us the importance of collaboration between local and national government. Devon County Council has also declared a climate emergency, and launched their own plan. But plans need to be actioned if they are to have any effect.

In North Devon, we have already done so much work towards addressing climate change, from increasing electric charging points to introducing the first rural e-scooter trial at our local further education college. However, because these improvements are not in the Liberal Democrat “plan”, they have dropped off the radar of progress.

If we are to encourage individuals that every step they take is important and matters, then we cannot ignore the good steps that people are already making, independent of any local authority “plan”.

There is more we could and should all be doing, and there is no need to wait for further “emergencies” to be declared or “plans” to be published. We can switch to renewables, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, use less electricity at home, recycle more, and all be a part of the solution. We need to share our individual successes so that everyone feels part of the solution.

That is not to say that there is no place for plans. For example, Amber Valley Borough Council has a great plan. We should not let people think they can only make a change if it is part of a plan.

I support Let’s Go Zero and in June wrote with Lord Knight of Weymouth to raise awareness of how tough the pandemic has been for children and for young people. According to NHS Digital, probable mental health disorders nearly doubled after the first lockdown. As we said at the time, the last thing children need is another crisis they feel powerless to change. We must flip the climate emergency into an opportunity for our young people to drive the change to a carbon zero UK.

Time is of the essence, and we need not reinvent the wheel. We should look where solutions currently exist, and work to implement them. UK100 brings together local authorities across the country to devise and, crucially, to implement plans for the transition to clean energy that are ambitious, cost effective, and garner support.

I have spoken at their events and seen how effective their solutions would be. I am a big supporter, and urge others to join. Their Knowledge Hub offers excellent ideas for how local leaders can work to hit net zero, which is available here.

Declaring a “Climate Emergency” suggest that it is someone else’s problem. We need Climate Action, and we must work together in driving this action, rather than waste precious time discussing the misguided and unhelpful Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, something that I regret even my own Conservative county council is doing.

This Conservative Government is a world leader in fighting climate change, and we have introduced the legislative tools to enable and encourage individual leaders and businesses to take action. We as individuals, business leaders, and as councillors need to get on and actually do what we can to make change, rather than producing unhelpful plans that do not in themselves solve the problem.

Selaine is hosting the North Devon Climate Summit on Saturday 18th September, 10am-1pm. Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, is keynote speaker, with three subsequent panels focusing on “The road to COP26 and where to next”, “The role of education”, and “Blue Carbon”. Secure your ticket now.

Antony Mullen: As the Tories make gains in Sunderland, Labour are divided and in denial

19 Jul

Cllr Antony Mullen is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Sunderland City Council.

The last few years have been difficult for Labour in Sunderland.

Two of their former councillors have been convicted of child sex offences, the ex-Deputy Leader of the Council was publicly sacked by his Leader, and the Council’s children’s services provision has been deemed Inadequate by Ofsted. If that was not enough, one Labour councillor was sued last year, after he falsely branded a local businessman a “paedo”. Another recently appeared in court charged with allowing minors to ride a quad bike without insurance, though the CPS has dropped the case on the basis of evidential difficulties. Nonetheless, it was unfortunate that just two days before his first court appearance, Bridget Phillipson, the Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, launched a campaign against the blight of quad-biking in the constituency.

It is almost incredulous that a local political party can be so bad at PR. The words “Promoted by Alan Mabbutt” would not be out of place beneath some of the newspaper coverage Labour has earned in Sunderland in recent years.

It is something of a running joke among Conservatives in Sunderland that Cllr Graeme Miller, the Labour council leader, reflects upon local elections results and blames “the national issues”, almost as if to replicate the “This is Fine” meme, in which a dog offers itself reassurance whilst the surrounding room is engulfed in flames.

It perhaps does not take the intellect of Professor Sir John Curtice to figure out that some of the local issues I’ve described also explain why the number of opposition councillors has increased from eight to 33 since 2016.

But at the heart of this joke is a more serious point: Miller is wrong for another reason.

Labour does not just lose seats, we win them. This year, we won six new seats: three in wards where we already had councillors and three in wards where we had no councillors before 2021. We won one of these three new wards – St Anne’s, formerly die-hard Labour territory – by just three votes. But what all the wards we won have in common is that we worked them. We delivered leaflets, canvassed, held litter picks, delivered shopping and prescriptions during the various periods of lockdown, and our candidates kept an active presence on social media. None of the seats we gained were “flukes” or won solely off the back of the so-called vaccine bounce. Indeed, it was striking how little the pandemic or vaccines came up on the doorstep. This year felt very much like politics as usual for us and turnout (which was roughly the same as 2018 and 2019) compounded this feeling.

Certainly the national picture is important – it goes some way to explaining why we improved our vote share across the board – but it was not enough to get us over the line. We needed to showcase our candidates, emphasise their local links, and expose the Labour-run Council’s numerous failures (or as many as the Campaign Toolkit templates would accommodate).

This is what Labour fails at. Its councillors are divided into at least two warring factions. Its leadership fails to properly handle criticism. Tired rhetoric about funding cuts and austerity that feels like a throwback to the Ed Miliband years is the ‘go to’ response for every question asked or criticism levelled. It lacks dynamism and creativity and many of its councillors look ready to retire (and this year, many of them did).

This kind of account might sound obvious (party that puts out a lot of leaflets does well, party with a record of failures doesn’t) but it reflects the kind of local factors that are often not captured in national accounts of why local elections produce the results they do.

An exception to this is the New Statesman. Its coverage of Sunderland’s local political scene is excellent, with one minor issue. Whilst it correctly identifies the Lib Dems’ strong performance in the city, it overlooks that we have outperformed them at the last two sets of local elections. Their ambition to become the main opposition party – sometimes by questionable means – has been unsuccessful.

That said, if Labour is looking to improve its local results, it should take a closer look at the Lib Dem vote.

In the local elections of 2019, Labour lost seats to the Lib Dems by some quite large majorities. Then, at the general election later that year, the Lib Dems got fewer votes across Sunderland Central than they got in the constituency’s Millfield and Pallion Wards alone, just seven months earlier. Then, at 2021’s local elections, those voters returned and the Lib Dems once again got more votes in Millfield and Pallion than they managed at the 2019 general election.

If Sunderland Labour was able to come to terms with its own flaws, it might ask why more people vote for the Lib Dems at local elections than at general elections. Having faced up to reality, it might accept it is not all about ‘the national issues’ and develop a strategy for taking back the voters who support Labour nationally, but not locally.

Is that likely to happen?

Well, as we look ahead to 2022, I am preparing for “No Overall Control.”

Richard Cook: Our message in Gloucester was about delivery. We were rewarded with a huge victory.

25 Jun

Cllr Richard Cook is the Leader of Gloucester City Council.

The last time a local election for Gloucester City Council was fought was in 2016. The result then was a Conservative overall majority, with Conservatives holding 22 seats, Labour holding 10, and Liberal Democrats holding 7.

The four years which led into the pandemic saw two deaths, two resignations, and two changing to independent –  five of these involved the Conservative members, and the resulting by-elections left the Conservative Group at 18, Labour at eight, Liberal Democrats at nine, with two Independents and two vacant seats. A technical position of No Overall Control, albeit one Independent consistently voted with the Conservatives. At the same time Gloucestershire County Council was also fighting all out elections and many of the candidates were fighting for positions on both Councils.

The pandemic meant that there would inevitably be some concerns about safe delivery of the elections so a campaign of encouraging residents to switch to postal voting was launched. This gained in excess of 2000 postal voters.

The 2020 City election had been postponed to 2021 and as restrictions were gradually eased the Conservative councillors, candidates, and other supporters gradually mobilized. This year the strategy was different. Previously City elections would not have taken place at the same time as County elections and activists would have mobilized as a City, moving around the City to provide support all around the City. This year the focus was local. Virtually all activists stayed in their own or neighbouring ward or division. Much less travel time moving around the city and much more focus on your own patch meant much more impetus in getting out there and engaging with your own voters.

The message was about delivery. Everything that Conservatives had been doing in the City to make improvements for residents. There was much to write about – a huge regeneration programme, major changes to the waste, recycling and streetscene contract delivering improved service, fantastic delivery of help for residents affected by the pandemic organized by members of the Conservative administration, and many other great achievements. The focus of the campaign was to tell residents about those achievements via newsletter, other leaflets, and especially by Facebook.

A telephone calling campaign started the ball rolling, followed by delivery of a newsletter, followed by knocking on the doors of everyone whether or not we felt they were our supporters, definitely winning round some formerly opposition voters. And because all was done very locally, those who did the work were going to be the beneficiaries of that work. In a normal local election, the activists would knock on 6,000 doors. In a general election we would normally get voting intentions from 9,000 homes. This year, the superb effort saw activists knock on over 11,000 doors and make contact.

There is no doubt there were favourable political winds blowing for the Conservatives – the vaccine rollout, Brexit and general pro Government sentiment, meant we were on the ascendant. Labour, of course, were struggling, and fell to trying to defend what they had and putting in no effort to make any gains. Liberal Democrats resorted to literature delivering a campaign of mistruths about the Conservative administration. Feedback from voters showed this approach to be counterproductive as many were annoyed at the negativity this showed. In the last weeks of the campaign, we spotted the trouble for Labour and moved additional resources in campaigning where we thought Labour was vulnerable. This led us to take five Labour seats, some for the first time ever.

So our positivity, Liberal Democrat’s negativity, and Labour’s apathy, led us to a rather extraordinary result. Conservatives took 26 seats, Liberal Democrats took 10, and Labour were left with three. We had moved from a position of No Overall Control to a majority of 13.

In the County Council elections, Conservatives took eight of the 10 available seats in Gloucester – one for the first time ever.

There was also a Police and Crime Commissioner election where our Conservative candidate won for the first time ever on the back of huge support in Gloucester.

Message successfully delivered, the challenge has changed from ensuring that all Conservative Group councillors attend each meeting so that our policies are voted through, to one of how can we keep each of our councillors engaged and busy, which is difficult to deliver because not everyone’s expectations and desires will be met. A majority of 13 shifts the dynamic.

It would be easy to say I don’t need to engage with opposition groups any more. In truth I don’t, but in my view that would be both parochial and conceited. I believe we are better for being inclusive and listening for ideas from others. My intention in taking Gloucester City Council forward to the next elections in three years time is to engage and ask others to participate. I won’t necessarily act on others ideas, but I will always allow them to speak so I can listen. The population is a broad church and we have to accept and respond to different views.

The voters of Chesham and Amersham remind the Prime Minister that he is mortal

18 Jun

The voters of Chesham and Amersham have given their message loud and clear. One of the safest Conservative seats has been lost to the Lib Dems. A Conservative majority of 16,223, only 18 months ago, was overturned yesterday to become a Lib Dem majority of 8,028.

But, er, just what was the message?

If it was to abandon HS2, why vote for the Lib Dems – a Party which supports the astonishingly expensive transport scheme?

Were voters protesting against “Freedom Day” being delayed on the grounds that continuing with restrictions is disproportionate? Or has Dominic Cummings alarmed them that the Government is too complacent and that lockdown should have been longer and more draconian?

Are the residents of beautiful villages in the Green Belt warning against “concreting over the countryside” with ugly planning developments? Or after a year where house prices have sharply risen, are aspirational younger voters showing their frustration that under a Conservative Government the dream of home ownership remains just that?

Amidst this array of grievances, the Yellow Army entered. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections. The first “upset” was their victory in Orpington in 1962 – in their previous incarnation as the Liberal Party. In the decades that followed such “shock” triumphs have become a staple of the political diet.

The Lib Dems are shrewd at detecting where victory is viable and then in throwing everything at it. It is not just a question of manpower – though bussing in cheerful and dedicated activists has been important. It is more sophisticated than that. Protest votes are wooed with the soothing message that the Government will not be overturned. The Lib Dem vote harvesting machine of contradictory messages is carefully honed to suit the whims of each household. A pious tone is combined with shameless opportunism and base dishonesty.

This boost does come at an important time for the Lib Dems, however. The local elections were disappointing for them – partly because coronavirus restrictions thwarted their chance to gain an edge from targeted campaigning. Some recent opinion polls have had the Green Party ahead of the Lib Dems.

Against that background, the Prime Minister might be tempted to shrug off the result. That would be a mistake. The electorate of Chesham and Amersham is telling him something important:

“Remember you are mortal.”

Or, as the Prime Minister would be more likely to mutter to himself during his next jog around St James Park with Dilyn:

“Memento Mori.”

The G7 Summit went smoothly. Perhaps a little too smoothly. A bit too much of a smug mutual admiration society. All these world leaders flying in – Boris Johnson on a private jet from London to Newquay – to then lecture us about climate change and issue targets that (if taken remotely seriously) would mean very considerable costs and restrictions for ordinary families. At the Summit we would saw ostentatious elbow bumping by these international statesmen on arrival – but then we saw them putting arms around each other at the grand looking soirées. The numbers seemed to exceed the limit the rest of us are obliged to observe at our more humble gatherings. They know how to count in the Chilterns. All the swanking and swaggering might have seemed a bit much. Such irritations would be less likely to sway votes at a General Election.

Then there is the southern discomfort over “levelling up.” Ambiguity has been allowed over quite what the policy objective means. This has allowed resentment to fester in the South that it means money being taken from them to give to the North. As with the indignation at the assumption in Critical Race Theory of “white privilege”, it rankles that those in the South are assumed to be rich and thus undeserving of training schemes, or road improvements, or whatever other goodies are on offer.

Yet the whole point of “levelling up” was supposed to a retort to the socialist idea that we are in a “zero sum game” where resources are fixed and the only means to help the poor is to take from the rich. The term “levelling up” was not invented by Johnson.He took it from Margaret Thatcher. The Right Approach, published by the Conservative Party in 1976 stated:

“Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the ‘class struggle’.”

That same clarity needs to be restored.

A final thought. The person who should be most relieved this morning is Sir Keir Starmer. That might seem perverse. Labour only got 622 votes in the by-election – that put them in fourth place coming in behind the Green Party. The Lib Dem campaign must have squeezed their vote very hard. As recently as the 2017 General Election, we had Labour coming in second place in Chesham and Amersham with 11,374 votes.

But what matters for Sir Keir is the Batley and Spen by-election in a couple of weeks. If Labour lose, as many expect, could it prove a tipping point? Could Labour descend into recriminations and division, forcing the resignation of Sir Keir? The Chesham and Amersham result makes that less likely. It will be easier to explain away…just one of those by-election “upsets.”