Local Elections – May 2022

Prior to 5 May commentators agreed that the 2022 local elections represented a potential watershed moment in UK politics. To an extent they were right.

While local elections often point to trends that will influence the upcoming general elections, the 2022 ballots had the potential to significantly undermine the Conservative Party leader and prove the rehabilitation of the Labour Party. In the event, the declarations mostly revealed the depth of the UK’s ‘crisis of ambiguity’, but that does not mean the elections were not significant.

What lies beneath?

Taken as a whole the results highlight the increasingly fraught relationship between the electorate and the three main political parties. All three can claim a good outcome, even the Conservatives, who have not been obliged to oust their leader. However, the results also highlight the fact that the LibDems have no chance of leading a government, that the Conservative government is out of step with its traditional voters and Labour is as far from forming a government as it was in 2015.

Underlining the ambiguity of the situation is that the results in England point will have very little impact on national policy. The levelling up agenda is no more likely to move out of the long grass, transport, housing, education, skills, social care will continue to make headlines but not much progress. Meanwhile the results in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to have far greater impact nationally, albeit that Westminster will seem increasingly unable to respond.

The party political

The Liberal Democrats gained the most seats, 192 mostly in England, which was almost half of the Conservatives’ 487 lost seats. Labour gained control of the most councils, mostly in England. The Conservatives lost 11 councils, ten of which are in England, including, ‘flagship’ Conservative London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster, and Barnet.

Party Councillors elected Change As % of base
Labour 2,265 +22 +9.8
Conservative 1,075 -338 -23.9
Liberal Democrat 712 +192 +36.9
Independent 145 +27 +22.9
Green 116 +63 +118
Residents’ Association 51 +10 +24.3

Divergence from Westminster

While last Thursday delivered some surprising, if not unexpected, results locally, especially in London (Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Wandsworth) the overall picture is indicative of the democratic malaise that has hampered UK politics for almost two decades: local government mostly needs Westminster backing to effect change, but MPs are loath to play to the English boroughs’ tune for fear of further alienating the wider electorate, including in the other nations.

Increasingly, only those local candidates without Westminster representation can make promises that appeal to local voters. As Labour discovered in Scotland post 1999, there comes a tipping point when this process hollows out the party’s local base, which becomes apparent when at general election none of that party’s MPs are elected.

Lessons in government

Of course, in addition to the usual mid-term protest vote, Conservatives felt the impact of ‘party-gate’. While the Party faces multiple challenges including London being an (almost) exclusively Labour city, ‘Red Wall’ seats proving highly competitive, and a resurgent Liberal Democrats, fundamentally it is starting to realise that it has to come to terms with the next phase of devolution.

The 2022 local elections saw Independent, Lib Dem and Green advances labelled as successes for nimbyism. Psephologists might argue their success simply draw attention to the English Question and the faults in the First Past the Post electoral model. That these candidates tended to do well in leafy, affluent should be a further warning. These electorates are articulate, patient and connected.

Does any of this matter?

The attention of the commentators and the media in general has been on the politics of the big parties, fixating on Labour’s advances and Tory losses. At a macro level, local election results rarely have long-term implications for Westminster, they are indicative of trends but not, in themselves, influential. However, two of the 2022 results may buck that trend.

Northern Ireland

First, Northern Ireland’s election result is already threatening to upset the applecart. It will influence national debate with its implications for the constitutional integrity of the UK and our relationship with the EU. Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party for the first time in the country’s history, filling 27 seats in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, followed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 25.

International Treaty requires power be shared with the largest unionist party, the DUP, but the DUP says it will not join the NI executive until the post-Brexit protocol governing trade across the Irish Sea is scrapped. Its intransigence will only serve to push more voters to support other, less unionist parties.
Not even this Prime Minister will be able to avoid being sucked into the argument. His party will not thank him if Brexit returns as a mainstream issue, especially if this further weakens the Union.

Devolving democracy

Second, Bristol’s decision to abolish its directly elected Mayor after only ten years since the post was created. The referendum demonstrated three important points, all of which are important for organisations that operate in the build environment. The first is referendums are still a clumsy mechanism to navigate complex issues. This one attracted less than 29% turnout and offered a simple ‘just say no’ option to voters alienated from the politics of local administration. Secondly, while the Conservative’s levelling up agenda arose from a genuine need, which can be seen in English cities from Bristol to York, elements of their populations are far from convinced by the direction of travel that such an agenda implies. The third point is that the established political bodies elected on a FPTP basis instinctively rally to maintain their institutions despite the necessity for reform and a more proportional, representative democracy.

If the referendum in Bristol tells us anything it is that achieving a constitutional balance that gives voice to today’s local communities while encouraging policies aimed at empowering future populations is difficult and uncertain.

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