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Local election in England: all politics is local?

Published: 18 May 2021

Arianna Giovannini looks at the local election in England. She stresses that all politics is local, but that’s hard to spot from London.

As soon as the results of the local elections were announced, a very specific story grabbed most headlines: this was a poor show for Labour and a triumph for the Conservatives. The well-rehearsed discourse of the ‘Red Wall’ – crumbling one brick at the time – was deployed very effectively to support this view. Surely, this was an exceptional election. Covid-19 cast a long shadow over the vote: tackling the pandemic is the issue on top of voters’ concerns, and the government has a direct and effective answer to it: the vaccine. This provided a very good backdrop for the Conservatives. Some have also argued that this was a Brexit election, and the aftershocks of the 2016 referendum decision continue to reverberate through the English electorate.

Broadly speaking, these points are of course valid. And yet, this analysis seems to rest on the assumption that local elections are simply guided by national trends, and the most important thing is what they tell us about the government and opposition parties. As such, this approach tends to subsume ‘the local’ into the national sphere. But this overlooks the fact that beyond the big ‘Tory vs Labour’ picture there is a wide range of complex local stories that helped shape the results – indicating that local dynamics remain important.

Take the example of Sheffield, where the election turned the Council on its head. The Labour party lost control of the Council for the first time in a decade and the incumbent leader of the Council lost his seat. The Conservatives won their first seat, while the LibDem and the Greens fared exceptionally well – leading to No Overall Control. This was undoubtedly a bad outcome for Labour. But it had nothing to do with Brexit or the Red Wall: it was all about trees and democracy.

Sheffield is a green city and local communities take great pride in this. From 2016, a controversial tree felling programme – resulting from a contract with a private company signed amidst financial pressure from a shrinking Council budget – kickstarted a local ‘revolt’ against the Labour administration, led by the community network ‘It’s  Our City’. This put under the spotlight not only the actual felling, but also issues related to council decision-making processes, accountability and transparency. Time passed, apologies were made, sticking plasters were put in place – but local communities did not forget. First, a petition for a referendum on the governance structures within the council was signed by more than 26,000 people and filed. Then, at the first opportunity citizens turned out in force – with a peak of 54% turnout in the Ecclesall ward – at the local elections and voted for change: both in the composition of the council,  and on how it is run, ditching the Cabinet model in favour of the Committee system.

While the ‘Sheffield trees saga’ can be seen as a hyper-local issue that reflects the interests of a specific constituency, many communities across the country have similar experiences. The story of Sheffield, in essence, helps to highlight one of the main takeaways from this election: people care about their communities, take pride in their localities, and value governance as well as leadership styles that reflect this.

This message came across very clearly also in the results of the metro mayors’ vote. Due to the top-down nature of devolution in England, since the first metro mayor elections in 2017 many commentators have argued that their powers are too feeble to make a difference, while emphasising also a lack of public support for these new figures, and for devolution in general. The 2021 results now challenge this view.

* Note: in some areas there was a second count, and in many cases more than two candidates stood for election. The results reported here focus only on the two main candidates and refer to the final total votes. London has also an elected mayor that could fall into the ‘metro mayors’ category. For the purpose of the analysis here I focus only on the ‘new’ metro mayor established since 2014. Source and full results: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c481drqqzv7t/england-local-elections-2021#england-mayor

Despite the huge deterrent of Covid-19 restrictions, and considering the low numbers in local elections generally, turnout for the metro mayor was remarkably higher than in 2017 (30% or above in all areas) – suggesting that both mayor and devolution are gaining popular traction. In some places, incumbent mayors won by a landslide – like Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley (72.8%) and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester (67.3). In others, voters changed their allegiances, and ousted the previous (Conservative) mayors. The two main political parties are still the main players in these contexts. And yet, it is interesting to note that the Yorkshire Party – a regionalist party created only 5 years ago – came third with almost 10% of the vote in the first election for the newly established West Yorkshire metro mayor.

Once again, these results are not a mere product of national politics. Surely some incumbent mayors had more support from Whitehall than their opponents, while others gained visibility by standing up against central government. But what really tipped the balance was their track record and the extent to which mayors delivered for their communities during their first mandate (e.g. creating new jobs, improving access to transport and implementing its franchising, protecting local businesses, supporting fair work conditions, tackling homelessness), more than the national party they belong to. When their record was poor, people voted for change. And where there was no previous record, traditional local allegiances and identities helped shape the outcome.

Overall, if there’s a lesson to take from this round of elections, is that ‘the local’ still matters. National trends can have some impact on voting behaviour at the local level. But in the end, voters reward representatives who are deeply rooted in and work for the betterment of their local areas. People care about politics when it feels closer and speaks directly to them about place, community and belonging.

Pausing devolution in England and continuing to eviscerate local government is unlikely to be the right answer to the message emerging from these local elections. Ultimately, all politics is local. It is a shame the Westminster bubble still struggles to come to grips with this simple, yet essential, point.

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Arianna Giovannini is Associate Professor/Reader in Local Politics and Public Policy, and the Deputy Director of the Local Governance Research Centre at the Department of Politics, People and Place, De Montfort University. She is an Associate Fellow of the Centre on Constitutional Change. She Tweets @AriannaGi
 

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