Making social science accessible

13 May 2021

Before the local elections last week, we posed five questions about the future shape of English politics that we anticipated the results might help us to answer. We chose councils that we thought would give indicative answers to these questions and now we revisit those councils to find out what happened.

Are Labour winning back any voters from the Conservatives?

To look at this question we chose the ‘bellwether’ council of Derbyshire, a council that has seen the transfer of power between Labour and the Conservatives but which going into the elections was Conservative controlled. This seemed to be a place with many key metrics, such as unemployment and the number of graduates, close to the national average that could tell us about how Labour were faring in these head-to-head contests.

The results here were disappointing for Labour, as always with local elections there are nuance at the ward level but overall, the Conservatives ended the process up by eight seats and Labour down by 10.

However, elsewhere in the country Labour were a little more successful in taking seats from the Conservatives, notably gaining five seats from the Conservatives in Worthing. While all eyes are on whether Labour can ‘win back’ seats in the North and Midlands, there is some evidence it may be able to pick up long-held Conservative seats in the south as they also realign in the post-Brexit political world.

Can Keir Starmer keep the left united?

We chose to look at Bristol to address this question and the city did not disappoint.

The Green party gained 13 seats to be tied with Labour on 24 seats on the council. This is a clear indication that in some of the wards where there are particularly high levels of graduates Labour’s dominance might be challenged.

The Greens had their best results ever, with Bristol leading the way but with widespread gains across the country. While it remains to be seen whether such gains in local elections can be translated into a more competitive set of results in a general election, the performance of the Greens will increase calls for a ‘progressive alliance’ of the kind seen in Unite to Remain in 2019.

How safe are ‘affluent remain’ areas for the Conservatives?

Having managed to make significant progress in affluent remain areas in the 2019 election, a key question for the Liberal Democrats was whether, with Brexit ‘done’, they could build on those gains.

With the party polling weakly in national opinion polls, there was not the same air of optimism about the party that carried them from the last set of local elections into the EU parliament elections in 2019. There were questions about whether the party could rebuild, and whether they would be beaten into 3rd place by the Greens, who had overtaken the party in some recent Westminster polls.

As is common in local elections, the Liberal Democrats outperformed their Westminster polling figures – with an estimated 17% share of the vote, they end up more or less where they started in terms of councillors, making just 8 gains against a total of 588 seats. They did however manage to gain control (from no overall control) of St Albans council, building on their 2019 general election success when the Westminster seat was won from the Conservatives by Daisy Cooper.

Part of ‘affluent Remainia’, Hertfordshire was one area where Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were most vulnerable. While Hertfordshire did not change hands, these warning signs for the Conservative Party turned into the reality of losing control elsewhere: in Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Tunbridge Wells, the Conservative Party lost their overall majorities despite gains in other parts of England.

How far does the ‘red wall’ have to fall?

To look at what was happening in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats, we chose Doncaster.

Doncaster is a council where there remained a significant UKIP vote share (if not seats) that gave potential for the Conservatives to make gains. While most attention focussed on the Hartlepool by-election, there are several seats in South Yorkshire that also had high Brexit Party vote shares in 2019, and how the ex-UKIP votes in these areas moved can help us see if these too are at risk in a future general election.

The Conservatives were able to make a handful of gains in Doncaster but not enough to challenge the dominance of Labour who won 40 of the 55 seats elected. As with all local election results a note of caution is needed in extrapolating from these contests as turnout in some areas is low. For the Doncaster council elections, turnout was estimated to be just 28%.

Can the Liberal Democrats revive in their old ‘heartlands’?

As well as the possibility of gains from the Conservative in affluent remain areas, the Liberal Democrats also sought to rebuild in places of previous strength. These places give an indication of whether the realignment of the party’s support to be explicitly pro-remain and, as a result, prosper most in remain areas is permanent. Or, whether they may be able to rebuild some of the local support in places such as Cornwall.

The evidence from Cornwall was strongly against this happening. The council became controlled by the Conservatives for the first time in 2017 (previously there was a Liberal Democrat/Independent coalition) albeit after a Boundary Commission review reduced the number of seats on the council from 123 to 87. Despite this the Conservatives managed to win a higher number of seats from this smaller total, while the Liberal Democrats fell into 3rd place behind the Independents in seats (though marginally ahead in vote share).

The results of the local elections have shown a continuation of the trends seen in the 2019 general election: more affluent areas moving away from the Conservatives (though the beneficiaries of this vary) while less affluent areas continued to move away from Labour with the Conservatives making the most gains.

Places with high levels of graduates also continued to move away from the Conservatives but, at the same time, demonstrated the pincer movement Labour are caught: the Greens and Liberal Democrats can challenge them on the ‘liberal-left’, while the Conservatives continue to hold together a coalition of social conservative voters brought together by Brexit.

In a set of elections that were expected to have something for everyone, the Conservatives and the Greens were those able to claim a victory of one kind or another, Labour struggled to find its voice as an opposition party and the Liberal Democrats continue to come to terms with a changed electoral reality.

By Sarah Overton, Joël Reland, Paula Surridge and Alan Wager, UK in a Changing Europe

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