Reflections on the Elections
The elections on Thursday were the subject of much speculation in advance and the post-result analysis has not been any less comprehensive. I set out my thoughts and predictions here. So how did each of the parties do?
Overall it is UKIP which grabbed the headlines with its gain of around 140 seats, well ahead of what most pundits (including me) predicted. The average expectation was for gains of 40-50 seats, but the gains in three authorities alone busted through this number. UKIP did especially well in four Councils in Eastern England: Lincolnshire (16), Cambridgeshire (12), Norfolk (15) and Kent (17). They also did well in Hampshire (10) and West Sussex (10), Suffolk (9), and Essex (9) but failed to gain a single seat in Bristol, Cumbia, Derbyshire, Durham, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, and Warwickshire. They put in a very creditable performance in the South Shields by-election, coming in second place with 24%, but failing to match the 28% they achieved in Eastleigh.
The Lib Dems did about as badly as expected, losing around 130 seats. They managed to hold on reasonably well in some of their stronger areas such as Cornwall but were badly depleted in Bristol (-10), Cambridgeshire (-9), Northumberland (-15), West Sussex (-13) and Durham (-18). They had no outright control of any of the Councils up for election and ended the count with none. Of more significance in the longer term is that they have lost their largest party status in Bristol and Northumberland, and their position as the official opposition party to UKIP in Buckinghamshire, Kent, Norfolk, and West Sussex. In the Parliamentary by-election in South Shields the Lib Dems were pushed into a humiliating SEVENTH place, behind the BNP and some Independents.
Labour made modest gains, with a net increase of just 291 seats. This was fewer than even the most pessimistic forecasts suggested. The independent local government analysts Professors Ralling and Thrasher suggested around 350 gains would be the minimum Labour needed to suggest that they were making decent progress from their 2009 nadir. I expected around 400 gains, and others predicted 500-600 gains. Labour was expected to at least regain the four Councils they lost in 2009, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with Cumbria being a possible bonus. In the event they only managed to gain Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the latter with the narrowest possible margin. Cumbria remained No Overall Control, Lancashire went to No Overall Control, and, most surprising of all, Staffordshire remained Conservative with a decent majority. The only authority where they swept the board was Durham where they already had a majority. Labour made small advances in most Councils but still ended the count with fewer than 10 Councillors in most southern authorities. Labour won the South Shields by-election with a reduced majority and also won the two Mayoral elections in Doncaster (Gain from Ind) and North Tyneside (Gain from Cons).
The Conservatives were expecting a kicking in these elections from both Labour and UKIP. Rallings and Thrasher predicted losses of around 310 seats, I expected losses of around 400, and others predicted losses of over 600 seats and all but 2 authorities. In the end the net seat losses were constrained to just 335 and the Conservatives retained most of the Councils they were defending. In those they lost to No Overall Control most have the Conservatives as the largest party and will therefore likely retain control as a minority administration or as part of a coalition. There were a number of surprises in all respects: the Conservatives kept control of Somerset and Staffordshire against all expectations but lost Lincolnshire and Norfolk to No Overall Control as a result of the UKIP surge. They even managed to increase their Councillor numbers in Surrey and Northumberland! The Daily Mail produced the swingometer (right) which suggested that losses of around 300-350 would be mildly dangerous for Cameron but well below the level which would be considered a catastrophe. The black spot for the Conservatives was the loss of the North Tyneside Mayoralty where Linda Arkley had done an excellent job and was a useful example of a Conservative winning in a northern urban area.
At the end of the counting process the Conservatives won over 1,100 Councillors (-335) and 18 Councils (-10), Labour won 538 Councillors (+291) and 3 Councils (+2), Lib Dems won 352 Councillors (-124), Independents won 165 Councillors (+24), UKIP won 147 Councillors (+139), and the Greens won just 22 Councillors (+5). The BNP were wiped out with zero Councillors elected. Conservatives control County Councils in all parts of England, North, South, East and West, while Labour has just two in the northern Midlands and one in the North.
Undoubtedly UKIP did very well on a turnout of just over 30%, but is it a “breakthrough”? We have seen similar surges before which have turned to dust. We only have to think of the SDP in the 1980’s, the Greens in 1989, the BNP in the last 10 years, and previous UKIP gains in Euro elections. Almost certainly UKIP will come first or second in next year’s Euro elections but to make a real impact on British politics UKIP will need to gain control of a number of higher tier Councils (town and parish councils don’t count!) and/or several MPs. It is therefore premature to talk of a “four-party system” or Nigel Farage taking part in a series of Parliamentary Leaders debates in a General Election.
Of more interest is the debate over how the major parties should respond to UKIP’s success. I profoundly disagree with friends like Dan Hannan and Nirj Deva who argue for some sort of electoral pact. Even if that were possible what could UKIP bring to the party? They have no MPs and are not likely to win any in 2015. Such a pact would mean the end of the current coalition and would alienate some Conservative members and supporters without delivering any tangible benefit.
The best thing that David Cameron can do is to stake out clear and consistent policy positions which unite the Parliamentary Party and the wider membership and stop pursuing policies which alienate our natural supporters. There are signs that this is the path which will be followed in the run up to the General Election with tougher stances on immigration, law and order, and welfare benefits. He could do more on making an EU Membership referendum a guarantee rathen than an aspiration, and he must stop allowing the Chancellor to cut Defence spending while wasting it on Overseas Aid. He must also swiftly ensure that Equal Marriage proposals get onto the Statute Book and avoid picking any more fights with his own side. It is also time to say thankyou and goodbye to Kenneth Clarke who has long outlived his usefulness. If he combined this with a Cabinet reshuffle which reduced the number of people attending the weekly Cabinet meetings he might lead a more focussed and coherent government.
Overall I am optimistic following last week’s local elections. Labour has failed to make any meaningful recovery from the dark days of Gordon Brown’s administration and the Lib Dems are greatly weakened. UKIP will prove to be an irrelevance come the General Election when the turnout will be much higher than last Thursday. A revitalised and emboldened Conservative Party can therefore win the next General Election with a working majority provided that the leadership leads and the Parliamentary Party unites and stops bickering in public. There is everything to play for!
UPDATE: There is a really sensible and reflective piece by Martha Andreasen here.