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.
Watching the votes being counted in the local elections on the evening of 4 May brought back memories of the first election I took part in, almost 20 years ago. In 2005, Stoke-on-Trent was one brick in a seemingly-impenetrable red wall, the sort of town where they didn’t count the Labour vote; they weighed it.
Those days haven’t exactly returned, but Labour has regained control of Stoke-on-Trent City Council winning 29 seats, with the Conservatives taking 14 and a single Independent surviving.
Labour Group leader Jane Ashworth, told the BBC that voters had “returned to Labour” due to “discontent and disheartenment” with how the Conservatives had run the city since 2015.
In a statement read on her behalf by Stoke South MP Jack Brereton, former council leader Abi Brown said that in many wards, Conservative candidates had maintained their vote share and attributed the defeat to a “collapse in the independents”.
The Conservatives in Stoke-on-Trent have been caught in a pincer movement by the party’s national troubles (which saw the party lose around 1000 seats across England) and their own mistakes. They have been hit by several expensive embarrassments, including building a 730 multi-storey carpark as part of the Smithfield development at a cost of £15mn that is hardly used and has lost the city £264,000 since opening in December.
Their problems have been magnified by the ‘levelling up’ funds promised to cities like Stoke by Boris Johnson in 2019 largely having failed to materialise.
The Labour Party is riding high on the back of a successful local elections campaign with leader Sir Keir Starmer stating that the results put the party on course for a majority at the next general election. Nonetheless, they will have some serious challenges to face.
The in-tray of the incoming Labour administration in Stoke-on-Trent provides an insight into the scale of said challenges.
The city went into the pandemic with deep seated social, economic and health inequalities, and the cost-of-living crisis has made the situation worse. Turning things around will require serious and sustained capital investment of the sort cities like Stoke struggle to attract.
Regardless of how elated they are at winning back control of their lost heartlands, Labour cannot afford to allow themselves to be deafened by the popping of champagne corks.
The old days when they were the only game in town aren’t set to return; the ‘red wall’ has joined the Berlin one in the history books. Public patience with politicians has been worn thin by years of unfulfilled promises and unless they take rapid and effective action their honeymoon period is likely to be short.
The elections in Lichfield mirrored national trends. The district council saw another Conservative loss to become ‘No Overall Control’. The Conservatives lost eight of their previously held seats though they remain the largest party with 21 seats compared with Labour’s 17 (a gain of six seats). The Liberal Democrats jumped to seven seats, a gain of six. No other party won a seat and Richard Tice’s Reform Party lost their only representative.
The interest in these results lies not so much in the numbers as in the comments made after the vote by the Labour group leader. There has been speculation that there might be some sort of coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats should the next general election produce a hung parliament. Councillor Sue Woodward ruled out such a liaison between the Labour and Liberal Democrat groupings on the council, describing it as a recipe for “instability and uncertainty” given that more people had voted for the Conservative councillors than either of the other two parties.
Nonetheless, it’s a fact that more people in Lichfield voted for councillors who aren’t Conservatives so the criticisms of our First Past The Post system as the right way to choose elected representatives remain very much alive. Expect this debate to continue.
While Birmingham didn’t hold elections this year, its neighbour, the borough of Sandwell is being touted by the prime minister as a success for the Conservatives. Most people won’t have heard of Sandwell, but might well recognise the name of one of its major areas, West Bromwich. For many years, Labour had a stranglehold – sometimes holding all 72 seats.
For the first time ever in this heavily Brexit-leaning area, at the 2019 general election, the Conservatives won two out of the borough’s three parliamentary seats. One was considered a very safe Labour seat held for many years by Tom Watson, the former Deputy Labour Leader. This seat is one of the main battlegrounds that Labour must win back next time if they are going to form the next government. Perhaps their job has been made a little easier as Watson’s seat was won by Conservative Nicola Richards who has decided to step down “due to a change in family circumstances” after just one term.
In 2022, after a series of scandals and several changes in leadership, Sandwell Borough Council was placed under special measures by the Government. In recent times, the council has had more leaders than the UK has had prime ministers. Adding to the chaos, earlier this year, the Labour party deselected nine sitting councillors, including the Mayor. He then defected to the LibDems, losing his seat back to Labour.
When hailing Sandwell as a success, the prime minister fails to mention that in spite of all their recent woes, Labour still managed to win 22 out of 24 seats being contested this time and actually increased its majority on the council. One of the prime minister’s ‘victories’ was in the ward of Princes End where there was a turnout of less than 20%. Winning by just 72 votes can hardly be seen as an amazing success. Perhaps the prime minister’s enthusiasm for Sandwell should be taken with an exceptionally big grain of salt!
The new Voter ID scheme had a significant effect on voters in the borough. The turnout was low – only 53,288 or 22.9% of voters cast their ballot, which is poor even for local elections. 1,135 (2.13%) of those wanting to vote were initially turned away for not having the acceptable ID. 795 returned with the correct document and were able to vote but 340 did not. That is 0.64% of all votes cast in the borough.
The Government has still failed to prove that the Voter ID scheme deters voter fraud but these elections legitimised a tactic which has disenfranchised a significant number of people. Even the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was in the government when the new law made its way through parliament, are now admitting it is a bad idea.
Elsewhere in the West Midlands
Notable results elsewhere caught the eye. Capitalising on the scandal caused by Nadhim Zahawi’s behaviour over his tax affairs, the Liberal Democrats took control of Stratford-upon-Avon town council. The Green Party became the largest group in Warwick where the Conservatives – in charge for the last 15 years – trailed in fourth behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
For a round-up of results in the East Midlands, don’t forget to read Part 1 here.
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