The Midlands is a microcosm that reflects the current state of electoral politics in the UK. Once, it was all too predictable. The shire counties voted Conservative, the cities and former industrial areas voted Labour and the smaller parties were practically invisible. Brexit changed those certainties and now, after the local elections, the situation is anything but stable.
Central Bylines writers examine what happened.
Lincolnshire is profoundly Conservative. It could usually be relied on – with a few exceptions – to deliver for the party, to Westminster, to the County Council and the district councils. The 4 May changed all that. Across the county, which vigorously supported Brexit, the Conservatives lost control all over the place. Oh, the irony!
In Brexit-central Boston, the Conservatives were all but wiped out, with their number of councillors cut from 14 (half the elected members) to five. The big winners were the newly formed Boston Independent Party, who campaigned on local issues. One member of this group, Lina Savickiene originally from Lithuania, recently made the news following the murder of her daughter in the town.
There was Conservative carnage across most of the county. In South Holland, their majority was reduced to just one as, once more, local independents swept home. A big casualty was Lord Gary Porter, chair of the Local Government Association. Next door, in South Kesteven, the leader Kelham Cooke – seen as a rising Conservative star – was unceremoniously dumped as Conservatives lost 16 councillors to independents, who doubled their representation.
Further north, Conservatives lost control of usually rock-solid territory in East and West Lindsey. East Lindsey (where Victoria Atkins is the sitting MP) was another story of independent triumph, while in West Lindsey (Edward Leigh’s constituency), the Liberal Democrats became the largest group. Lincoln remained resolutely Labour while only North Kesteven and North East Lincolnshire provided any comfort for the Conservatives.
Why all this upheaval? It’s very likely that the government’s willingness to see a decline in public services in spite of their rhetoric over levelling up has cut through with voters. But there are local issues too, not least the presence of migrants in Skegness hotels and the proposal to house them at RAF Scampton, which will have played a significant part, making MPs Matt Warman and Edward Leigh respectively shift uneasily in their seats. It will be interesting to see if the county reverts to type at the next general election.
Concerns about the effect of the new voter ID laws on voter turnout have been widespread across the country. But in North Lincolnshire, voter ID wasn’t the only thing hampering people’s ability to vote. 864 postal votes for the ward of Broughton and Scawby were not found until after the declaration had been made, at which point it was legally too late to include them.
North Lincolnshire Council has apologised for what it has called a “genuine mistake” and referred the election outcome to the Electoral Commission. As it stands, the two Conservative candidates were elected with more than 500 votes each, while Labour’s candidates both won more than 300 votes each.
North Lincolnshire Council has informed all the candidates of the options available to them which include issuing a complaint to the Election Petitions Office or making an application to the County Court under election law.
The mishap does not affect the balance of North Lincolnshire Council in a significant way. The Conservatives won 27 of the 43 seats with Labour taking the remaining 16. But we don’t know what difference the uncounted 864 votes would have made to the outcome in the ward of Broughton and Scawby itself. It could have been very different.
The borough council of High Peak in Derbyshire has a chequered history with neither of the two main parties consistently dominant over the years. This time saw Labour take back control. The 43-seat council went from no overall control to a comfortable Labour majority.
For the local Labour Party, it was a good – and efficient – day. The last time these seats were up for grabs (in 2019), Labour won 35% of the votes, which gave them 22 seats and a wafer-thin majority in the borough. Last week, 51% of the vote netted them 29 seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ vote share actually went up from 33% in 2019 to 36% this time. But this translated into only 10 seats, compared to the 16 they won in 2019. Tactical voting, it seems, is back.
The pre-election contrast between the two parties was marked. Labour’s campaign had been all about people power. Their social media overflowed with pictures of dozens of smiling candidates and campaigners wearing their shoe leather thin on the streets of Buxton and Glossop. High Peak Conservatives, meanwhile, bet the house on the popularity of the local MP, Robert Largan. He, his mother and a handful of his regular chums were pictured in all parts of the borough, but of their actual candidates, very little was seen.
There were moments of drama along the way. One first-time Conservative candidate was so shocked by the strength of local anti-Conservative sentiment that he promptly rebranded himself and stood successfully as an independent. Another Conservative councillor put a photo of herself with the local mountain rescue team on the front of her leaflet – forcing the team to dissociate themselves publicly from any political party. She did not hold onto her seat.
A lot of the contests were extremely close. Six seats were won or lost on margins of less than 20 votes. Most nail-bitingly of all, in one ward an incumbent Conservative councillor and the Labour challenger received exactly the same number of votes. Even after two recounts, they could not be separated. The seat was retained by the councillor after his name was literally pulled out of a hat.
The Liberal Democrats saw their seats fall from three to only one. Meanwhile, despite Labour fielding a candidate in Hope Valley (a move that most progressives felt was unhelpful), the two well-regarded Green party councillors were re-elected without difficulty. The one Reform candidate in the whole borough barely troubled the scorers.
The Derbyshire Dales constituency includes the towns of Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock, and covers part of the iconic Peak District National Park. It traditionally elects a Conservative MP (currently Sarah Dines). Recent boundary changes have reduced its total number of seats from 39 to 34, and following the local elections there is now ‘No Overall Control’ with the Liberal Democrats as the largest party (12 seats), closely followed by the Conservatives (11 seats). With 6 seats, the Labour party secured all of its high priority target wards of Wirksworth, Cromford and Matlock Bath, and is now in a strong position to influence policy. Overall turnout was 43.1%.
One of the most dramatic wins was by Andy Nash, standing for Labour in the ward of Bradwell and gaining the seat from the conservatives with 74% of the vote. Also notable was the clean sweep win by Liberal Democrats of the three Darley Dale seats, displacing three Conservatives.
Nottinghamshire – Broxtowe
There are fewer more bellwether areas in England than Broxtowe, that chunk of suburbia, small towns and former coalfield that runs north from Nottingham, so you can guarantee CCHQ strategists were watching intently as all seats went up for grabs. You can also guarantee those same party psephologists had their heads in their hands by the time the votes had been totted up. Writ large onto the national scene, this is bad news for the Conservatives.
While areas such as the university town of Beeston may have been expected to remain comfortably Labour with a couple of Lib Dems in the mix, the wealthy village of Attenborough flipped all of its three seats from blue to red, an unprecedented clean sweep possibly triggered by the Conservatives laissez-faire view on dumping sewage into waterways: the village is famous for the vast wetlands nature reserve to its south. It wasn’t just a ‘blue-wall’ collapse however: areas that could just about be described as ‘red wall’ in the north of the borough also booted out the blue.
Labour was hoping, at the very least, to emerge as the largest party, even if a coalition would be required to hold power. As it was, they took an unprecedented 26 out of the 44 seats on offer (up from 14 in 2019) with the Conservatives losing half their seats, dropping from 20 to just 10. Leader of the Broxtowe Conservatives, Richard Jackson, looked ashen as the full extent of the loss came in.
This was a disaster for Jackson, and one that came with a personal sting. After a surprise Labour victory in one of the three seats in his ward, Jackson (who had bizarrely labelled himself ‘Member of Parliament For Broxtowe’ in his campaign leaflet) was forced to draw lots with a fellow Conservative candidate who took exactly the same amount of votes to decide who took the last seat.
In the same town hall that Jackson had sold off at a loss in his disastrous and scandal-ridden tenure as Leader of the Council, he drew the short straw and Broxtowe booted out its second most prominent Conservative. The most prominent, Darren Henry MP, now looks set to be our constituency’s first-ever single-term MP when the next general election rolls around.
For a round-up of results in the West Midlands, don’t forget to read Part 2.