By Phil Briscoe
As the fallout continues to unfold from the local elections last week, looking beneath the surface of the English council elections highlights a clear trend in the shifting political support base. Putting all of the other factors to one side, such as Kier Starmer, the pandemic and the levelling-up agenda, voters maintained a consistency with their stance in the Brexit referendum.
At the time of writing this, every local authority where the Conservatives gained control last week was an area that voted Leave in the referendum – areas such as Basildon, Pendle, Worcester, Amber Valley, Cornwall and Dudley have the common theme that they are all Leave areas and in all cases the Conservatives saw significant electoral success, typically at the expense of Labour. Conversely, Labour celebrated two big mayoral scalps in Cambridgeshire and the West of England, where they ousted Conservative mayors in quite strongly Remain areas.
Other pockets of Labour (and Liberal Democrat and Green) success included the typically Conservative Tunbridge Wells, which voted Remain, and the Conservatives saw their vote fall in traditionally safe areas such as Surrey and Hertfordshire. Some of the results in Oxfordshire were particularly striking, including in Chipping Norton (once the powerbase of Prime Minister David Cameron) where Labour gained seats from the Conservatives. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats were seen to lose ground in Leave areas and gain ground in Remain areas, such as St Albans, where they took overall control of the council.
There is a lot of talk about regional variations, but the statistical evidence points to one major dividing line in almost every one of these local authority results and it has smashed the north-south divide of the political map that we have come to expect in recent decades. This is political levelling-up and voters are exercising their free will to back politicians that reflect their views rather than the politicians they have always voted for.
The severity of the Brexit effect has only been partly witnessed because of the nature of councils electing in thirds. The Labour losses witnessed in places such as Rotherham, Plymouth, Stevenage and Rossendale were dramatic but with only one third of seats up for election, a change of control was not on the table. If the trend had been applied across the whole council, then these would have been four councils on the list of Labour losses.
Brexit may now be done but voters have long memories and whether they feel their own beliefs are best served by the Party who backed their ideological corner, or whether they have just lost trust for the Party that didn’t represent them, this is an electoral shift that looks set to continue for some time. Politicians and pundits alike need to acclimatise to a political landscape which is less about historical complacency and more about practical political representation.