Opinion – English local elections 2021: how to really read the results

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The headline results of the local elections in England are clearly bleak for Labour and rosy for the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats are, in effect treading water, while the Greens and independents have made some gains in terms of numbers of councillors.

But these are the aggregate council results. The top-level masks so many discrepancies. When listening to so much of the media coverage about these local elections, many candidates and councillors must get disheartened. They campaign as vigorously as possible, only for everyone to obsess about what the results mean for Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson.

The focus has been on how the “red wall” in the north of England is continuing to crumble. Labour lost control of Sheffield City Council and of Durham County Council for the first time, while the Conservatives have gained control of Northumberland County Council. But by zoning in on these, we miss that Labour had either no or only small losses in Gateshead Council, Liverpool City Council, Newcastle City Council and Knowsley Borough Council – and that there were still no Conservatives elected there. There are councils across England with no sitting Conservatives, just as there are others with no sitting Labour councillors.

In the case of the Sheffield City Council result, the Conservatives made a gain of one councillor – and now have one sitting councillor. It was the Greens and the Liberal Democrats who made more gains.

These were a result of local issues in Sheffield, particularly the row over chopping down trees and the attempts by the council to avoid scrutiny. Consequently, there was a local referendum in Sheffield to review the governance structures of the council.

The Conservatives did make some significant gains. They resumed control of Basildon Borough Council from no overall control, as both Labour and UKIP lost seats. They took control of Amber Valley Borough Council, Cannock Chase Council, Dudley Borough Council, Gloucester City Council, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, Southampton City Council, and Worcester City Council – in each case making gains from Labour. There was also a significant change in Cornwall, where the county council election saw the Conservatives making huge gains at the expense of the Liberal Democrats – who had previously been the largest party on a hung council.

Yet the Conservatives also suffered setbacks, including losing control of the Isle of Wight Council and Cambridgeshire County Council – although they remain the largest party on the council in both cases.

There were also councils where the Conservatives suffered losses but were able to retain control of the council: Castle Point Council in Essex (where the majority was reduced to one), East Sussex County Council, and Gloucestershire County Council. There may also have been expectations of taking control of some councils, such as Peterborough City Council or Stroud District Council. In the former they fell short; in the latter, they lost seats.

The Cambridgeshire results are fascinating, as the inconsistency of the votes to different bodies highlights how local elections really are about local issues. The Conservatives lost control of the county council and failed to win any seats on the city council. They made a gain of one councillor on Peterborough City Council (falling one short of an overall majority) but their incumbent lost the mayoral election for the Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. They did, however win the police and crime commissioner election for Cambridgeshire.

The Liberal Democrats will have walked away from these elections happy to have retained control of all of the councils they had held prior to the election. Their hopes of gaining control of St Albans City and District Council were realised, and that is the high point of an otherwise uninspiring set of results. There were gains and losses in terms of councillors being elected around the country without there necessarily being a clear picture as to why. The Liberal Democrats have a track record of digging in at the local level, and this appears to be what they will continue to do.

The incumbent parties were largely successful in the contests for combined authority mayors. Only two changed hands – both Labour gains. In one of these – Peterborough, and the West of England – the incumbent, Tim Bowles, who was standing down as the Conservative mayor, suffered the ignominy of having the prime minister fail to identify him by name repeatedly in a national television interview. This gives an indication as to how important the centre thinks regional government is in England.

The London mayoral election saw an overwhelming victory for Sadiq Khan and the London Assembly elections saw little change. For the mayoral election, it was all about the two big parties, and how close either candidate can get to winning that magical 50% of first preference votes. Neither did, although Khan racked up over 40%, giving a significant lead which was more than doubled when second preference votes were added.

We also saw the increased party-politicisation of police and crime commissioner elections, with independent incumbents losing to those standing under party banners. However, these elections have always suffered from a lack of awareness among the public and turnouts often largely depend on other votes taking place in the area.

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? Well, yes, the Conservatives did well and Labour did very badly. While that is the overarching picture, the reality is that each set of results came about through local issues and local campaigning. Added to this, especially in the regional races, is name recognition. Khan, Andy Burnham, Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Steve Rotherham are all high profile in their areas, if not beyond, particularly as a result of the pandemic. The knock-on effect is the greater chance of re-election. The issue is whether or not they, as well as local authorities, have the tools to be able to deliver on what is needed for their local communities.

The Conversation via Reuters