The May local elections: A selection of those in the metropolitan boroughs

Chris Game

My previous elections preview tabulated all the local, regional and even parliamentary elections taking place on Thursday 5th May. This preview focuses on just the top two-line entry in that table: the 36 English metropolitan boroughs, 32 of which are electing one third of their councillors, and three their whole councils. In fact, the focus is narrower still – on just eight councils where even these partial elections could for various reasons prove more than averagely interesting.

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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.

Reason, myth and migration

Phillip Cole

One of the dominant features of public debate about immigration in the United Kingdom is the absence of reason. Many political commentators have begun to notice the reluctance of people to abandon basic myths about immigration, despite the prevalence of evidence that shows those myths to be false. For example, net immigration has fallen over the past three years, but only one fifth of people believe that. The rest are convinced that net immigration is on the rise.

I think there is something deep seated at play here in the public sphere. I don’t mean to draw attention away from the importance of racism in anti-immigration stances, or the important role of the media in creating a great deal of hostility. But I do want to suggest the idea of ‘Heimat’ can supplement these explanations and help shed light on the persistence of myth within the immigration debate.

‘Heimat’ is an extraordinarily complex idea that plays an important role in German thought and culture, and I can’t hope to do it justice here. It captures the feeling of being at home, or, more accurately, is a reaction to the experience of not feeling at home.

In other words, ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. Heimat is an idea of a place where one really belongs, and so is an imaginary home set up against our experience of alienation. It is essentially backward looking and nostalgic, and so it does not exist in the present.

But equally it does not exist in the past. Although it is a place, and exists in the past in one sense, it is not a place that has ever existed. It is an imaginary place when things were, we are told, more innocent and simple and stable: it is motion-less and change-less.

This place is not open to rational criticism. When people say things were better in the past, pointing out to them that this past has never actually existed – it is an imaginary reaction to the present — brings about no change in their nostalgia. And although as an idea ‘Heimat’ has played a role in both right and left politics in Germany, one key element of it is mistrust of the outsider, whose presence is at least one cause of the loss of ‘Heimat’.

So the immigrant brings change, but change of something that lies in an imaginary past. The reality is that the world was never like that and has already changed. In fact the immigrant may symbolize change, but they don’t bring it. The world just has changed and is changing – it always has. And the immigrant is one who lives in the borderlands of change.

Although the idea of Heimat is explicit in the German-speaking world and has no simple equivalent in the English-speaking world, I have no doubt that it is present in the way we think. Patrick Wright’s description of ‘Englishness’ in his article, “Last orders for the English aborigine”, certainly fits the model, and perfectly captures the stance of UKIP and its supporters.

This Englishness “…finds its essence in that sense of being opposed to the prevailing trends of the present. It’s a perspective that allows even the most well-placed man of the world to imagine himself a member of an endangered aboriginal minority: a freedom fighter striking out against ‘alien’ values and the infernal workings of a usurping state”. At its heart is an idea of England “…in which the very thought of difference or change is instantly identified with degeneration, corruption and death” (pp.68-69).

And so ‘Heimat’ is a reactive idea, a reaction against the fluidity and change experienced under conditions of modernity, which result in alienation and a feeling of lost-ness. And it is the migrant – part of the process of motion and change – who is identified as the culprit for this lost-ness. But the key point here is that it is not open to rational criticism. It is an idea that lies beyond reason.

My suggestion is that if we study the public debate about immigration, and the anti-immigration stance that many take, we will find the theme of Heimat running through them – phrases keep re-occurring in those debates, most strikingly, I have found, the theme of not people to being at home in their own country. And the most important aspect of this theme is, of course, that it is not open to reason – the resistance to argument and evidence is an essential dimension of Heimat.

Myths, of course, can be combated through persisting with reason and evidence, and it may be that we can see this in the fact that Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, recently stated that he would rather be poorer with fewer migrants, an acceptance that immigration brings economic growth to the UK, and that it was the social/cultural impact of immigration that was important rather than economic impact.

This seems to show that the barrage of evidence and argument about the economic benefits of immigration have had some effect even within the minds of UKIP, where in the past the economic myths have been pretty much hard-wired. So the fact that we find our attempts to reason rebuffed by myth again and again should not discourage us from continuing with our efforts. The one thing we must never do is abandon hope in the power of reason.


Phillip Cole is a Visiting Professor in Applied Philosophy with the Social Ethics Research Group at the University of South Wales, and Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of West of England. He is co-author of Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? with Christopher Heath Wellman (Oxford University Press 2011), and Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh University Press 2000).

Phillip presented these ideas as a paper for the Migration and Citizenship Seminar Series at the University of Birmingham. See the programme for details of forthcoming events.

The English question

Martin Stott

It is worth contemplating the possibility of a scenario in which Scotland votes for independence in September and a new Government holds an ‘in/out’ referendum on the remainder of the UK’s membership of the EU in 2017 – and the vote produces an ‘out’ result.  Whether it is of the social democratic variety espoused by the SNP in Scotland, or the populist nationalism of UKIP in England, nationalism is having a profound effect on British politics.  Contested membership of the EU and the salience of immigration in the political debate are two examples of where political parties’ responses are fumbling and confused, and were these two referenda to result in Scottish independence and a British exit from the EU, the shocks  to the existing political system would be enormous.

What has this got to do with local government? The reality is that Britain has an extraordinary concentration of political and economic power in London and whatever their result, the impact of these referenda only serves to reinforce that position. None of the major political parties are seriously thinking about any kind of constitutional settlement which addresses the issue. There is a long tradition of parties praising local government to the skies in opposition and promising all kinds of devolution of powers and local taxation when they come to power, only for this to be forgotten the moment they actually obtain power.

This is particularly striking in relation to local tax raising powers. The proposed ‘mansion tax’ – a very poor substitute for a council tax revaluation (let’s not go down the path of the regressive nature of the council tax itself just now) will of course be collected by the Treasury and not local government. Labour has always seen the Treasury as a force for good, especially in the Brown era – think public expenditure and tax credits amongst other things. But the power of the Treasury combined with the influence and economic power of London and the City in particular, has hugely distorted the social and economic balance of England and the rest of the UK.

This sense of being ignored by metropolitan elites has certainly driven the rise in support for UKIP and a more general disenchantment with politics generally, where a cynical view that the elite looks after its own has been confirmed for some by the scramble for parliamentary seats by the sons of Labour grandees (think Stephen Kinnock, Will Straw and David Prescott).

A crisis of legitimacy is developing in England where the kind of top-down statism perceived to come from Whitehall and Westminster is exacerbated both by current government policies and by the dysfunctional and systematic inequality generated by markets  and inequitable public service provision over many years, both of  which have their roots in a culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’. The problem is that a lot of people don’t agree with that any more (if they ever did) and the problem for political parties is that voters are expressing that at the ballot box, where support for the major parties is ebbing away by the day, whether it be to nationalists, UKIP, independents, or simply by not voting at all.

Many Conservatives would dispute the idea that they were a party that supported the long arm of the state. But folks in local government know better. Whether it is Eric Pickles sounding off about waste collections systems (a subject he has been mercifully silent on recently) or the wickedness of councils raising revenue through ‘excessive’ parking charges, as he caps council tax rises at 2% and then decides that councils aren’t playing the game if they raise them by 1.99% and proposes that they should be capped at 1.5% in future, micro-management of local government is what Whitehall loves doing most. That is of course when it isn’t wriggling out of George Osborne’s public expenditure cuts by loading them onto errr…local government.  National Trust Chairman Simon Jenkins encapsulated this in a recent article in which he pointed out that in reality the really big loser in the recent rounds of austerity has been local government who have ‘…borne the lion’s share of the burden so as to relieve Whitehall budgets of real pain.’

The rising resentment of many outside the corridors of power about the absence of a political voice and accompanying economic levers for many different English communities is fuelling this splintering of political support and adding to the crisis of legitimacy. Yet there is plenty of evidence that complex policy challenges ranging from entrenched pockets of social disadvantage and isolation, the resource implications of a combination of long term care for the elderly and obesity and other lifestyle diseases amongst younger people, or the impacts of catastrophic climate change, are best addressed at local level, a reality briefly acknowledged  in the dying days of the Brown Government through its ‘Total Place‘ programme.

The idea of devolving more economic and political power across England is hardly a new one and a few nugatory experiments such as the Regional Development Agencies have been tried and dropped. Lots of politicians in all political parties pay lip service to the idea that the public realm means more than just the central state, but if this crisis of legitimacy isn’t to start taking an uglier form, a road map of how power will be devolved  to cities and counties in the next few years is urgently needed. A satisfactory answer to the ‘English Question’ presses, as these referenda loom, and whatever their outcomes it won’t go away any more.


Martin Stott joined INLOGOV as an Associate in 2012 after a 25 year career in local government.

Where have all the politics gone? On wildebeest, lions and other political animals

Catherine Staite

One benefit of spending many days mass catering and washing up over Christmas has been the companionship of Radio 4 news programmes.  Sadly, I now feel a bit like those women who decide on divorce just after Christmas.  Prolonged exposure to political reporting has left me feeling betrayed and irritated in equal measure.

Perhaps it isn’t Radio 4’s fault. Perhaps they can only do the best they can with the dross they have to work with.  Perhaps the lack of substantial topics and forensic interrogation are products of the absence of principle and passion in political debate.

There is the obsession with retail.  I like a bit of shopping myself but retail trends and their reflection of wider society and their impact on the economy are reported with mind-numbing and repetitive banality.  If I hear more bland stories about ‘cash strapped families shopping around’ I’ll cry.

Why aren’t the world’s best journalists digging underneath these seasonal superficialities? What about the differences in spending power and standards of living between rich and poor?  The poor are rarely mentioned, unless negatively and simplistically as  ‘working age benefits claimants’.  What about the places our goods come from and the people who make them? Whether we get our bargains from John Lewis or Amazon – they all come across the sea in big containers  from the same places but the people who make them don’t get a fair return on their labour and are often brutally exploited. This only gets reported on when thousands die at one time, which makes the issue newsworthy  – until it is promptly forgotten again.

Immigration is perhaps the topic where a lack of intelligent, questioning journalism is most evident.  National politicians resemble small boys playing football – all dashing after the ball together with a woeful lack of strategy or even tactics.  The ball they are all chasing is a nasty construction of xenophobia, fear and ignorance, held together by nostalgia for a misremembered past. At other times they resemble wildebeest (other herding animals with a tendency to mass panic are available).  Is UKIP now a lion?  Only if the wildebeest think so.

Where are the facts?  How much do immigrants contribute to the Exchequer, our culture and our quality of life?  Lincolnshire farmers could not harvest their crops without immigrant labour. Our hospitals could not function without  immigrant health professional. So the answer has to be ‘lots’. How many of us – that’s us to distinguish us from them who come in ‘hordes’, determined only on scrounging and/or destroying our way of life – are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants ourselves?  Lots and lots. Instead, we get a diet of unchallenging reporting of the prevailing narrative which is creating bias merely through repetition.

Reporting of the floods has not been accompanied by many facts.  Bald statements about the money allocated to capital works and cuts to revenue  leading to job losses leaves us no wiser about the costs and benefits of flood defences and  the public policy choices to be made about the best way of allocating scarce resources remain uncharted waters.  Cameron was reportedly issuing stern instructions to local government about fulfilling their duties – without challenge.  No reporter questioned the authority of someone who couldn’t navigate his way out of damp carpet to instruct sovereign  bodies to perform their expert functions.

Going back to work has been a welcome relief from shouting at the radio but I’m still suffering from a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  There are questions to be asked and answers that really matter – but who is asking them?

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: is ‘Blue Labour’ part of the left response to the rise of UKIP?

Martin Stott

It is a commonplace for commentators to say that the recent success of UKIP in the shire elections poses a threat to Labour as well as the Tories. There is some truth in this, but a strand of thinking in the Labour Party has been grappling with some of the issues UKIP poses from a left perspective for several years. This is referred to as ‘Blue Labour’.

Essentially it is a critique of both Old and New Labour. It understands that the relentless progress of the last Labour Governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of government and is critical of its neo-liberal view of the world – globalisation understood entirely on terms set by finance capital. Instead it focuses on a different approach to socialism, stressing communitarianism, self reliance and mutuality.

The debate has been driven by the credibility of many of those leading it, most notably the Labour MP and Milliband’s policy review chief, John Cruddas and cultural studies professor, Jonathan Rutherford. They set out the Blue Labour stall thus:

“…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no one. It champions humanity in general but no one in particular. It favours multi-culturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific. Over the past decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion”.

A lot of people on the left can relate to that and the ‘Blue Labour’ argument is essentially that the loss by Labour of over five million votes between 1997 and 2010 is a reflection of this, encapsulated in Tony Blair’s famous 2004 comment “Leave the past to those who live in it”.

The problem with that mind-set is that this view of Labour supporters certainly does resonate with UKIP recruits from Labour. Recent focus groups of UKIP supporters when, after rehearsing a lengthy catalogue of things they didn’t like were asked what they did like about Britain, reportedly responded, ‘The past’. Cruddas’s summary of the trajectory of New Labour under Blair is:

“At its best New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s, early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end it embraced a dystopian destructive neo-liberalism cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour”.

What ‘Blue Labour’ is trying to articulate is a direction of travel that is different from a ‘progressive’ politics that uncritically embraces globalisation, neo-liberalism, consumerism and a market economy that leaves great swathes of the population behind and whose guiding principles were graphically exposed by the banking crisis of 2008.

By contrast, the current Government is a constant source of dismay to its supporters as it takes its admiration of all things ‘Blairite’ to new heights, with its attempts to flog off parts of English common life to the highest bidder, forests, waterways, parks, the Post Office, sport and culture, not to mention that national institution, the National Health Service. Hence the mass defections to UKIP from the Tories

By contrast ‘Blue Labour’ is attempting to create a polity through a set of values rooted in relationships – reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity and co-operation rather than the managerial, the bureaucratic and the corporate. It is not just a critique of New Labour though – Blue Labour is not that keen on Old Labour either.

As long ago as 1952, Richard Crossman in an article entitled “Towards a philosophy of Socialism” recognised that the post-war project, the creation of the Welfare State, the triumph of Fabianism, took for granted that politics was the business of maximising general happiness through social planning.

However a welfare state administered centrally in Whitehall sapped the life blood of the Labour Movement. “Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation”. Now (and this was in 1952!), it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had previously helped run municipal “gas and water socialism” were given “no vision of new socialist responsibilities”. ‘Blue Labour’ takes a similar view and indeed a deep scepticism of the Welfare State seems to be one of its defining features.

Navigating a credible path between a critique of the Welfare State, hostility to globalisation and neo-conservative economics, and a potentially reactionary nostalgia, is not easy. Labour’s traditions of solidarity, at their best, have been cross-class, cross-generational, cross-gender and cross-national. That is why the bust-ups over immigration prompted by the comments of the original exponent of ‘Blue Labour’ Maurice Glasman (enobled by Ed Miliband in 2011), hurt. It is also true that the ‘flag, faith and family’ tag has more than a hint of not just nationalism, but patriarchy. Some have denounced its perceived conservatism as a ‘Janet and John’ 1950’s style approach to family life. But the Labour Movement has a ‘tradition’ that embraces feminism, internationalism and more recently, multiculturalism. In this regard, ‘Blue Labour’ needs to be a lot more nuanced than current public perception of it.

It has also been criticised for having no coherent economic policy. Certainly talk of limiting the market, bemoaning the “commodification of human beings” and the promotion of regional banks and ‘city parliaments’, doesn’t constitute an economic policy. But unlike the “Big Society”, a shameless Tory ‘borrowing’ of the narratives of community and mutuality, ‘Blue Labour’ is not utterly silent on the market.

Whatever we think of the specific prescriptions that have emerged so far, what we are seeing with ‘Blue Labour’ is a return of something that was repressed under New Labour. Labour is once more talking about class and ideology and from that, some constructive new thinking and a credible response to the UKIP threat, should emerge.


Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.