Last week, voters across the UK went to the polls to decide the fate of 8,000 council seats. The results came in fast – nothing like an imminent Coronation to provide a sense of urgency – and the overall picture seemed fairly clear from the outset.
It was a bad day for the Conservative Party.
Indeed, voters appear to have adopted an ‘anyone but them’ strategy with Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens benefitting depending on geography and demographics.
To be kind to the Tories for moment, these results are not especially unusual for an administration 13 years deep and they are not quite on par with Labour’s performance ahead of Blair’s victory in 1997. But they’re not far off, and as ever in British politics, where they are winning is as, if not more, important.
With significant losses in true blue territories like Windsor and Maidenhead, Hertsmere and Medway as well ‘Red Wall’ spots like Hartlepool, there’s not a lot here to comfort the Prime Minister.
But in one of the most centralised countries in the developed world, how much do local elections matter?
It’s easy to smirk at the obsession with potholes and bins (or road infrastructure and waste management as we might like to say) but for many people those are the day-to-day interactions with our political system. Development, planning and housing are largely determined at local level too – they are incredibly political issues. How many homes get built, by whom, what they look like, are largely for local politicians to decide. Indeed, getting anything built – a factory, a power plant, a cross-country railway – requires agile navigation of local politics, often a lot more eccentric than Westminster, which is really saying something.
The interaction of local, regional and national tiers of government can also create a complex operating landscape. A Council Leader at odds with the local MP is a difficult dynamic and in-fighting and uncertainty are no friends to progress or investment.
As we get closer to a General Election this landscape will become increasingly febrile. Places that have seen big or surprising swings in the local elections will be home to some very nervous MPs – including big names like Deputy PM Oliver Dowden in Hertsmere and former PM Theresa May in Maidenhead – who will be looking for local issues to campaign on.
Caution and careful consideration will be required for any organisation looking to win hearts and minds over the coming year.
There will be much talk of the cost of living crisis, the NHS and industrial action as the political analysts get their teeth into the results but those big, national conversations often mask the gritty local issues that change minds – from newly introduced traffic calming measures or a post office closures right up to vital but controversial new infrastructure.
On his victory visit to Medway, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer felt confident enough in the local election results to proclaim that “we are on course for a Labour majority at the next general election”. That’s as bold as opposition leaders get 18 months out from polling day, so it would seem that these local election results matter a great deal; we can consider the battle for Westminster to have begun in earnest today.