The forgotten local elections – Conservatives defied predictions here too

Chris Game

You’d not have known it from the national media, either before Election Day or since, but the 650 parliamentary contests weren’t the only ones taking place in the UK last Thursday. It was the year in local government’s four-year election cycle that almost all English district and unitary councils – 279 of 293 – had elections, and there were votes too for six mayors, for many parish and town councils, plus the odd local referendum.

There were no council elections in London, Scotland or Wales, but English voters – many doubtless to their surprise – were confronted by up to five ballot papers. Those in Bedford, for example, had votes for an MP, a mayor, two borough councillors, up to 11 parish councillors, and a referendum on their Police and Crime Commissioner’s proposal to increase Council Tax – the first ever of its kind. The proposal – specifically for a 15.8% increase in the Police and Crime Commissioner’s portion of council tax – was rejected by nearly 70% to 30%: Yes 91,086; No 207,551.

These multiple ballots offered electors the obvious opportunity for split-voting: one for their MP or national government, and another more personal, local or protest vote. Minor parties and independents in the council elections could be expected to be chief beneficiaries, but, as shown in the nearly complete results table, that was another ‘expert’ prediction largely confounded.

Blog 11th May

9,500 local elections are even trickier to predict than 650 parliamentary ones, and few are daft or brave enough to try. Those who do will start from the baseline of four years ago – 2011 here – when these actual seats were last fought, compare that year’s results with current national opinion polls, and hope.

2011 was surprisingly good for the Conservatives, a year into their far from popular Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They gained votes from disaffected Lib Dems, and the coinciding electoral reform referendum galvanised their own supporters. This time, though, the national election effect was expected to boost the turnout of Labour and Lib Dem voters.

The poll standings of both main parties had dropped significantly since 2011. But, with the Conservatives the more damaged by UKIP’s dramatic rise, and defending twice as many seats as Labour, the latter was predicted to make most net gains, with the Lib Dems not suffering “too badly” in losing perhaps “around 50 seats”.

If these predictions echoed those for the General Election, then so did the outcome. The Conservatives were unambiguous winners of these local elections, Labour not just net, but absolute, losers, and the Lib Dems suffered as painfully as they did nationally.  UKIP made progress, but less than it hoped, and the Greens flatlined.

For the Conservatives, their more than 30 gains – mostly, it should be noted, councils previously under arithmetically No Overall Control – will take the local headlines. Two particularly satisfying results, though, will be the retained control in their only two metropolitan boroughs – Solihull and Trafford – both with additional seats. Solihull Greens lost a seat, but, with the Lib Dems losing two, they are still the official opposition.

Conservative unitary council gains include Basingstoke & Deane, Poole, and Bath & North East Somerset, where there are now two Greens, but 14 fewer Lib Dems and a first-time Conservative majority. Districts won include traditionally Independent Babergh, Suffolk, also for the first time in its 41-year history; Amber Valley, Gravesham and North Warwickshire straight from Labour; Hinckley & Bosworth from the Lib Dems; Gloucester, St Albans, Scarborough, Winchester, and Worcester.

Further Labour losses to No Overall Control included Walsall metropolitan borough and the unitaries, Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent. There was a little compensation perhaps in hanging on to a knife-edge majority in Bradford, thanks to Independents, UKIP and Respect all losing seats, and gaining majorities in unitary Stockton-on-Tees, and, after a suspended recount and overnight rest, Cheshire West & Chester.

Labour is also now largest party on Brighton & Hove council, since 2011 the UK’s first to be run by the Greens. As in the General Election, the Greens’ recent membership surge didn’t really translate into hard results, though they will be encouraged by seven gains in Labour-dominated Bristol, bringing them within touching distance of official opposition.

This time UKIP was the history maker. UKIP leader Nigel Farage had failed to become Thanet South’s MP, but his party reduced Thanet district’s Labour councillors from 24 to 4 and, with 33 of its own, won overall control of its first principal council.

Good Lib Dem news was at a premium all weekend, but enough of Bedford’s conscientious voters gave their mayoral ballot paper X to Lib Dem Dave Hodgson to re-elect him comfortably for a third term as the borough’s mayor.

In other mayoral votes, Peter Soulsby was re-elected for Labour in Leicester, Gordon Oliver for the Conservatives in Torbay, and Mansfield’s three-term Independent Tony Egginton was succeeded by his Mansfield Independent Forum colleague, Kate Allsop.

Another Independent, Mike Starkie, was elected as the first mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, while in Middlesbrough three-term Independent Ray Mallon has retired and is replaced by Labour’s Dave Budd – though only after a second preference count and the rejection of large numbers of spoilt ballots, presumably from the many Labour members who, despite the result, want the mayoral system abolished.

In these mayoral elections at least, then, there’s something for almost everyone: Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, and Independent.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Fracking: the latest challenge in the Tory heartlands

Martin  Stott

The hot days of July finally saw the debates around the implications of ‘fracking’ of unconventional hydro-carbons in the UK reach out and grab the attention of the national media. As Tory grandee Lord Howell called for the process to be focussed on the ‘desolate North’ (he corrected the initial impression that he was referring to the North East by saying that he really meant the North West) and  Energy Minister Michael Fallon was reported in the Mail on Sunday as warning that fracking was likely to face fierce resistance from the middle classes in Conservative heartlands, as if to prove his point dozens of protesters were arrested at an exploratory drilling site near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the process of drilling and then injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to  fracture shale rocks to release natural gas, has caused a revolution in energy policy in the USA where gas prices have dropped dramatically as gas from fracking particularly in North Dakota, and more controversially Pennsylvania, has come on stream. Coal has suddenly seemed a dirty and expensive option and as a consequence carbon emissions from the world’s biggest economy have dropped significantly.

Can the trick be repeated in the UK? The Coalition Government is betting the farm –  quite a  few farms actually – that it can. Chancellor George Osborne announced in this year’s Budget that fracking companies would receive tax allowances for developing gas fields and would be able to offset expenditure on exploration against tax for ten years.The next tax avoidance scandal perhaps. Best known and a pioneer in the field is Cuadrilla (referred to by some opponents as ‘Godzilla’) whose explorations in Lancashire have amongst other things led to a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool in April and May 2011. But there are quite a few other companies across the country as the official estimate for UK reserves is 37 trillion cubic metres of shale gas in the north of England and geologists have yet to quantify reserves in the south.

But it is Balcombe in rural West Sussex which is becoming the test bed for what this means for energy experts, planners, campaigners and politicians. Campaign group Don’t Frack with the Fylde certainly raised the issues and those earthquakes, 1.5 and 2.3 in magnitude respectively, shook confidence in the safety of the technology (let’s face it: who notices in North Dakota where the  nearest house is 60 miles away?) but the opposition in southern England is having a greater impact on politicians and opinion formers. The Mail on Sunday’s  report of Sevenoaks MP Michael Fallon’s private briefing on fracking reported him as saying of potential well-heeled protesters ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive.’ He admitted that exploratory drilling was likely to spread the length and breadth of southern England saying ‘The second area [after the North West] being studied is the Weald. It’s from Dorset all the way along through Hampshire, Sussex… all the way a bit into Surrey and even into my own county of Kent.’

This focus on the lusher parts of the South East which has started at Balcombe is going to be a real concern for Conservative strategists. The ‘Noting Hill set’ has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its rural base as proposals ranging from the sell-off of forests, to wind farm policies, changes in planning laws, opposition to which has been championed by the Daily Telegraph, and the HS2 rail route through the Chilterns have all been seen as a slap in the face for this rural base, many of whom have gravitated towards UKIP. But the Greens too have a presence in the South East, with their charismatic MP Caroline Lucas representing a Sussex seat, an MEP for the region and their only council, Brighton and Hove, only a few miles away.

Meanwhile up in Whitehall, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been ruminating on what to do about the planning and land use implications of promoting the fracking revolution and on 19 July it spoke,  issuing guidance  to local planning authorities. The guidance stresses that fracking could be a vital source of energy, saying ‘Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies… minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction including to the economy when determining planning applications.’ It goes on to explicitly exclude any attempts by planning authorities to trade off fracking with renewable developments saying, ‘Mineral planning authorities should not consider  demand for or consider alternatives to oil and gas resources when  determining planning applications.’ Because of the scale and strategic nature of minerals planning applications these have remained a planning function of county councils, still Tory controlled in southern England.

It  remains to be seen if DCLG will allow a level of discretion in determining these applications by county planning authorities which could well limit or even stop fracking in its tracks in the south, or whether  as would be possible using potential secondary legislation  under the Growth and Infrastructure Act, it could take applications for  fracking for shale gas  out of the hands of county councils and instead have them decided by the Secretary of State as  part of the regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. On the one hand it could bow to Tory pressure in the shires and allow all the developments to happen ‘up north’ by default as counties refuse most if not all applications. On the other, it may decide to take the risk, strip counties of their power and pull shale gas development permissions back into Whitehall. Only time, and a bit of local politics in the home counties, will tell.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government. He is National Policy Adviser on minerals planning for the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Happy Anniversary, Greens – especially from local government

Chris Game

An unambiguously positive title, I trust you’ll agree – not least because I plan to stick a gentle boot in later on. We must start, though, with full credit where it’s due. This weekend, the Green Party of England and Wales celebrates its 40th anniversary – a remarkable achievement indeed for a party that, in its own folklore anyway, owes its origins to a guy in Coventry picking up a Playboy magazine.

The Coventrarian was Tony Whittaker, a solicitor and onetime Conservative councillor, and the story goes that his eye was caught and his political inspiration sparked not by Playmate of the Month, but by an interview with the American biologist, ecologist, and population alarmist, Paul Ehrlich. Now it so happens that 40 years ago I, like Professor Ehrlich, was working for Stanford University, California, and I remember distinctly that his Playboy interview had appeared some three years earlier, in 1970, shortly after the publication of his controversial book, The Population Bomb. I conclude, therefore, that either Whittaker was a serious Playboy collector and addict, or the Ehrlich interview played a somewhat less singular role in Green Party history than is sometimes suggested.

Whatever. What is indisputable is that Whittaker and some likeminded associates were alarmed by Ehrlich’s doom warnings of population growth threatening the Earth’s delicately balanced environment and ultimately human survival. Despairing of Britain’s existing political parties even seriously acknowledging the problem, they resolved, at a meeting on 23rd February 1973, to form a new one. Its initial name was simply People, but by the time of the two 1974 General Elections it had morphed into the People Movement – albeit a modest-sized one. Suffice to report that in February its six candidates’ combined 4,576 votes constituted statistically 0.0% of the total, and in October it was rather less successful.

Time for a more meaningful name, and in 1975 the Ecology Party was founded and almost straightaway won its first council seat, in Rother, East Sussex. It also acquired a high-profile spokesperson in (now Sir) Jonathon Porritt, and under his chairmanship election performance improved dramatically, membership rose to over 5,000, and it could lay genuine claim to be “the fourth party in UK politics, ahead of the National Front and Socialist Unity”.

By now, though, ‘Greenness’, previously associated largely with the Greenpeace environmental movement, was becoming more party politicised. Actual Green parties were emerging across Europe – Die Grünen in Germany, Les Verts in France – and in 1985, partly to avoid being outflanked, the Ecology Party underwent another name-change to the Green Party, initially UK-wide but since 1990 just of England and Wales, there being separate parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

By most measures of party vitality, the Greens’ record over the past quarter-century would be judged one of steady, if frustratingly gradual, progress. As shown in the graphs below (, in an era in which membership of most major parties in most western democracies has been declining, Green Party membership has grown more or less uninterruptedly from 5,000 in 1998 to a 2011 count of 12,800. Its parliamentary vote has increased at each election since 1997, and 2010 saw party leader, Caroline Lucas, returned as the first Green MP.

chris graph

Despite never again reaching its spectacular 15% vote share in the 1989 European Parliament elections, the party has had 2 MEPs since 1999 and has increased its vote at each five-yearly election since 1994. Three Greens were elected to the first London Assembly in 2000, and the party’s gradually increasing representation on principal councils is currently approaching 150. This includes running the unitary Brighton and Hove Council as a single-party minority administration, and Lancaster City Council as part of a Labour/Green coalition. And, at least as important as it must sometimes be irritating, it has received the double-edged compliment of seeing Green ideas and policies permeate, or blatantly appropriated by, the so-called mainstream parties.

There can be no serious doubting, then, that anniversary congratulations are well in order. There is, however, a ‘however’.  I note that the Greens, perhaps with their celebrations in mind, are again claiming to be the fourth party in UK politics – and, reluctant as I am to rain on the parade, I respectfully beg to differ. That reluctance is increased by the fact that a close INLOGOV colleague, Professor John Raine, somehow manages to double as an industrious Green councillor, and so it is with particular apologies to John that I suggest that the Greens’ bid for fourth party status, notwithstanding all that gradual progress, is probably less persuasive today than when it was originally made back in the 1980s.

It may be the party itself senses the holes in its case, for it talks of having “up to a million supporters in this country, and tens of millions across Europe” – John Vidal, The Guardian, 18 February 2013 – . Supporters are good, especially in large numbers, but they’re slippery customers – not reliably countable and cashable, like subscribing members, voters, or elected representatives. If your case rests on alleged supporters, it’s shaky.


A Green bid for fourth-party status based on the data in the accompanying table would rest to an extent on Caroline Lucas in the Commons, its sister-party members in the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, and its record in successive Euro-elections, but above all on its local government representation – hugely exceeding that of UKIP, who have no more than three members on any single council.

No minor party does well out of first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, but, leaving Ms Lucas aside, UKIP in recent elections has fielded considerably more candidates and gained far more votes. In fact, in 2010 the BNP too fielded more candidates and won more votes. UKIP’s Euro record is also much the superior, its membership has consistently been and is today significantly higher, and, certainly at present, it’s closer in the opinion polls to challenging the Lib Dems than it is to being headed by the Greens.

I reckon therefore that, unless you give extra weighting to councillor representation – a pleasing idea, I grant you – UKIP’s case is overall the more persuasive, though definitely not as compelling as its website would have us believe, as, on the back of a few striking by-election results and opinion polls, it promotes itself as “the UK’s third political party – and the only one now offering a radical alternative”.

One final thought.  In preparing the above table it occurred to me that, depending on the criteria you use, there is arguably another candidate for the UK’s fourth largest party, and one almost certain to increase its visibility over the next few years: the Co-operative Party. We tend not to think of it as a party in its own right, but, apart from the minor snag of not fielding its own candidates in UK elections, it has all the other attributes of the legally separate party that it is: a leadership structure, membership subscriptions, local branches, an annual conference, and a distinguished history dating back to the First World War.

It is the political arm of the co-operative movement and since 1927 a sister party to Labour – the two parties working jointly to promote, among various shared aims, co-operative working and other forms of mutual organisation. This joint-working includes an electoral alliance, under which the parties put forward and partially fund the election expenses of ‘Labour and Co-operative Party’ candidates – 44 in the 2010 General Election, of whom 28 were elected, including Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls.

As the table shows, there are also Labour and Co-operative Peers, members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and, says the party, “hundreds of councillors”, although the latter are difficult to count, as in multi-member wards the party must endorse all candidates before they are permitted to use the designation on ballot papers. Whatever the number, they are definitely increasing – including in the Greens’ proverbial backyard of Brighton and Hove, where Labour councillors became the first to change their name officially to the Labour and Co-operative Group. Others have followed suit, and, as Labour nationally and locally starts seriously embracing ideas of mutualism and co-operation, the sister party must be sensing something of a new dawn. So make the most of your 40th anniversary, Greens – only four years to the centenary of the Co-op Party.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.