The Conservatives lost 1,060 seats in last week’s elections, relinquishing control of 48 councils across the country. As was widely predicted, Labour made significant gains across marginal and Red Wall councils, picking up more than 500 seats. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats swept across the Blue Wall, winning 12 councils.
Labour Leader Keir Starmer has claimed his party’s performance has set them ‘on course for a Labour majority at the next general election’ with Labour now the largest party in local government, surpassing the Tories for the first time since 2002. Labour took control of authorities across the general election battleground, including High Peak, Swindon and Plymouth.
At a meeting of his shadow cabinet on Tuesday, Starmer said ‘people who turned away from us during the Corbyn years and the Brexit years are coming back’. The leaders of the 22 councils won by Labour have been tasked with drawing up ‘emergency cost-of-living plans’ within their first 100 days.
Labour does indeed seem to be bridging the Brexit divide, as the party made its largest gains in areas with the highest Leave vote. Many of Labour’s biggest gains came in Brexit heartlands such as Stoke, Mansfield and Hartlepool. The Johnson 2019 strategy was focused on attracting Red Wall Leave voters while holding on to Blue Wall Remain voters, however, with both Brexit ‘done’ and Corbyn gone, this strategy has collapsed.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has described the loss of more than 1,000 councillors as ‘disappointing’ but insisted he would ‘strain every sinew’ to fulfil his pledges on the economy, NHS waiting lists and small boats. On Tuesday he insisted those pledges are ‘the right ones’ to win back voters. However, some Conservative MPs have suggested Sunak will need to do much more than reiterate those pledges in order to improve the Conservatives’ position ahead of a general election. The Conservative MP for Swindon Justin Tomlinson said the results were ‘devastating’ and should serve as a ‘wake-up call for the party at all levels’. Talking to Times Radio, he criticised the Conservatives’ pitch to voters, adding it lacked a ‘coherent message’.
The Conservative Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, who is up for election next year, said the Conservatives’ losses were in part due to ‘the turmoil and upheaval of the last 12 months’. Similarly, in Swindon, where Labour took control for the first time in 20 years, overthrown Tory council leader David Renard blamed ‘the cost-of-living and the performance of the Government in the last 12 months’ for his party’s poor results.
In much of the country, it was the Liberal Democrats who benefited from the Conservatives’ decline. Achieving a share of 20% – the highest since the coalition in 2010 – Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey called it their ‘best result in decades’. Davey said he would table a vote of no confidence in the Government when Parliament returns: ‘The local elections showed that the public clearly has no confidence in Sunak or the Conservatives, so it’s time for a general election now. There’s only one reason Rishi Sunak would deny British people a say at the ballot box: because he is running scared and knows he’d lose.’ However, the Lib Dems are not able to force a debate on the motion, so it is likely to end up being mainly symbolic.
The Green Party gained 241 seats – their best-ever result in local elections – and gained its first majority on an English council, in Mid-Suffolk, although they were overtaken as the biggest party by Labour in Brighton and Hove.
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