The local election results show urban Britain remains divided

Reflections on what last week’s results mean for urban and national politics

Last week’s local elections decided who will make most of the most important decisions in English cities over the next few years – decisions that will have a big impact on local economic growth across the country, as well as the national economy.

All London boroughs went to the polls, while major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Hull were ‘all out’ (meaning that all council seats were up for grabs). A third of seats in many other places were decided, and a number of mayoral elections also took place, most notably in the Sheffield City Region.

The political hue of local administrations, margin of victory and make-up of cabinets, backbenchers and opposition will have a huge impact on the lives of urban voters.  Moreover, last week’s results offer insights into the outlook for urban Britain and the future prospects of the main political parties at the national level.

Nothing (much) has changed since the general election

Reflecting on last year’s general election, our Chief Executive Andrew Carter wrote

To bolster its meagre majority, the Conservative leadership needs a policy platform to win over the two groups which it lost most ground to Labour at the general election: young people and urban voters. Indeed, the concerns of these two groups are increasingly conjoined, as Britain’s young population has become progressively more urban in the past two decades.

Aside from the shock outcome of the 2017 general election (in which Labour fared better than it had in the previous month’s local elections), victories in town halls have been a useful indicator of the likely composition of the next Westminster government. However, last week’s results suggest that neither the Conservatives nor Labour made a definitive breakthrough in urban Britain – and that another hung parliament could again be on the cards at the next general election.

For a start, the national vote shares of both the Conservatives and Labour in last week’s election was roughly equal, at around 37 per cent. Moreover, by the time the votes had been totted up across the country, the number of urban councils held by the Conservatives and Labour were nearly the same as before (24 and 66 respectively, compared to 26 and 64 prior to last week). Indeed, the Lib Dems made the biggest gains, taking the leadership of three urban councils which were previously Conservative-held (as well as making inroads into the Labour majorities in Sunderland and Hull).

The continuing urban divide

But if the overall political picture stayed largely the same, there was considerable flux in places across the country, with both main parties making gains in some cities, and incurring losses elsewhere. For example, Labour’s gain of Plymouth at the Conservative’s expense and Kirklees and Tower Hamlets (which previously no party had overall control over) were matched by Conservative gains in Barnet, Basildon and Peterborough.

In Greater Manchester, Labour became the biggest party in Trafford (previously controlled by the Conservatives), but actually lost seats overall, and had a particularly bad night in the outlying boroughs of Bolton and Wigan. Moreover, the Tory loss of Trafford was made up for by Labour’s loss of Derby (which no party has overall control of now).

These changes suggest that that the political divides evident in urban Britain at the last general election – between bigger cities and smaller cities, and buoyant and struggling places – are persisting. That Labour could secure its second-best-ever result in London, wiping out Tory representation on a number of councils, but only end the night in control of the same number of councils shows how the urban vote is shifting in a non-uniform pattern.

These disparate voting patterns in cities across the country point to the distinct concerns and outlook of different urban areas, driven by divergent economic fortunes – and therefore the need for greater variation in policy-making to address the needs of different places. It also highlights the difficulties that the national leadership of the main political parties will face in making a concerted pitch to win over urban voters at the next general elections.

Implications for the metro mayors

Last week’s results have significant implications for the standing of the metro mayors, including the newly-elected Dan Jarvis in Sheffield City Region. Having gained 47 per cent of the first round vote (on a turn-out of 26 per cent), Jarvis has a strong mandate to bring together the combined authority leaders and rubberstamp the city region’s devolution deal to enact the manifesto he campaigned on, including making the case for a Yorkshire Mayor, which we would argue against making the first priority.

However, his share of the vote was less than what Labour gained across the city region in the general election (56 per cent). The onus is therefore on the new mayor to quickly show he can deliver for people across the city region when it comes to issues such as skills, housing and transport in the city region. Not only with that be important for establishing his position, it will also be important for consolidating Labour’s strength across the city region.

In the West Midlands, the Conservative metro mayor Andy Street’s position was bolstered by the addition of a third Conservative leader on the seven-person authority combined authority, with Conservative gains in Walsall adding to leaders in Dudley and Solihull.

Elsewhere in mayoral areas, Ben Houchen may be heartened by Labour’s failure to make up ground in the areas of the Tees Valley which went to the polls. However, the Liberal Democrat gain of South Cambridgeshire district council indicates that James Palmer may have a closer race in 2020 in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

There is a long time between now and the next scheduled general election in 2022, but there is little in last week’s results to suggest that either of the main parties is likely to break the political stalemate in Westminster anytime soon. This stasis on the national political stage (especially as Brexit negotiations continue to occupy time and resources), as well as the growing political divides in cities across the country, point to the continuing importance of the devolution agenda, and the need for the Government to enhance and expand it.

The UK and its cities have problems that local leaders and metro mayors are trying to solve today. The Government needs to ensure that those in power locally have the tools and funding they need to address the distinct concerns their places face.

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