Those who follow my tweets that record local by-election results over the last year should not be surprised by this week’s council election results. For the past year they have been revealing shock upsets where either the Green or Liberal Democrat candidate unseats a sitting councillor – more often a Tory rather than a Labour one – with a jump in their vote share by anything from 30 to 50 per cent.
Labour a year ago was still losing councillors to the Tories in by-elections in Red Wall and Midland seats. It is only in the last few months as the Partygate scandal developed that Labour started holding those seats and occasionally taking a seat back from the Tories.
What the local elections showed this week is that these startling by-election gains by the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are not a flash in the pan but part of a new trend. It also confirmed that Labour is back in business, has largely halted its decline in local government seats, consolidated its firm grip in London,, recovered from an all time low in Scotland, and yes, made gains in the North of England in Cumbria and Lancashire and stopped the rot in the North East. And it has made spectacular gains in Wales and become a force again in the South of England.
Sunderland symbolic of the halting of the Tory surge
The symbolic Labour council for me in the North was Sunderland. This was a council the Tories were keen for Labour to lose – and previous gains by the Tories and Liberal Democrats made this feasible as Labour’s majority had been cut. The Tories put money into winning seats – Johnson came up to the North East – even if he confused Tyneside with Teesside. What happened? The Tories did not gain a single seat and Labour managed to hold on with reduced majorities. Instead the Lib Dems took a seat off the Tories and Labour – winning by that surge in vote share that has become familiar in council by-elections.
The two symbolic Lib Dem council victories for me are St Albans and Gosport. The Lib Dems just controlled the Hertfordshire city before the local elections and had also taken the Parliamentary seat from the Tories in 2019. But this week’s election saw a Liberal Democrat landslide. The city has 56 councillors – 50 of them are now Liberal Democrat after they gained 20 seats overnight wiping out Labour and reducing the Tories to just four councillors.
Gosport was another extraordinary result for the Lib Dems. I know the town from sitting on the Gosport War Memorial Hospital inquiry. It is a fiercely working class, Tory naval town, heavily pro Brexit leaning even towards UKIP at one time. Yet the Remain supporting Liberal Democrats have taken control and ousted the Tories. This with Somerset , Woking and Hull going Liberal Democrat show a big change.
For Labour in the South the fact they now have a big majority on Worthing Council in West Sussex is also an extraordinary result. Some five years ago Labour won its first seat for 50 years and now they control the authority. The other extraordinary victory is Westminster. Dame Shirley Porter, now 91,- the Tory leader fined for gerrymandering the council to prevent Labour ever winning in the 1980s – must be cursing the result in Israel now Labour have a working majority.
Rise of the Greens
The other factor in the mix is the rise of the Greens. Though they control no council fewer and fewer authorities do not have a Green councillor – after this election . Here their appeal is potentially dangerous to both the main parties. The emphasis on green issues is subconsciously boosting their brand among people fed up with the old two party system. They can simultaneously appeal to the radical elements who left Labour after Jeremy Corbyn was banished from the Parliamentary party – and to rural Tories concerned about the demise of the countryside. No wonder one right wing Labour supporter suggested undemocratically that people expelled by Labour should be banned from joining another party. Thus the Greens can win seats in Sheffield, North Tyneside, Newham and West Oxfordshire, Sussex and Rutland all in the same year.
There is one person who is going lose out altogether by these converging trends – Boris Johnson. He is facing a pincer movement. His chances of further gains in the Red Wall area have been stymied, he has gone backwards in Scotland and Wales and his heartland Blue Wall seats are now seriously threatened by the Liberal Democrats in places like Esher and Walton and in places like Worthing and Southampton by Labour.
In my view, these local election results have created the perfect storm to undermine Boris Johnson.
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