The Conservatives and Labour parties have lost seats in local elections in England, in what has been labelled a “Brexit backlash”. Smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and Greens and independent candidates have made gains. But what will this mean for the business of local government?
Since the great banking catastrophe of 2008, municipalities have been at the forefront of UK government austerity drives. Financial cuts have been deep and affected almost every frontline local service, including schools run by local councils.
When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government looked for the easiest ways to make cuts after coming into power in 2010, certain services were out of bounds, such as the NHS. Locally based services took the brunt of cost savings measures.
If any party took the rap in 2015 for imposing austerity it was the Liberal Democrats who lost hundreds of councillors, in addition to MPs at the general election which took place at the same time. The Conservatives actually made more than 500 local councillor gains and Labour lost councillors in key poorer areas to UKIP. That was a warning of the political earthquake to follow a year later, in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Fast forward to 2019. The implementation of Brexit is stuck, and government and parliament are in crisis. Austerity for local government has continued a pace, with recent warnings of dire underfunding for children’s services. Almost all local services are acknowledged to be underfunded, according to the MPs on the Public Accounts Committee. One estimate says that some local government services have had their expenditure cut by 50% since 2010. This has happened at a time when social needs have increased.
The big question going into the 2019 local elections was whether voters would use the poll to reflect on the current crisis for local government – or as another chance to express their views on Brexit. Most pundits predicted that, given the Conservatives’ better than expected showing in 2015, the continuation of local austerity, and the national Brexit deadlock – the ruling party would surely lose. The party’s only hope was that voting in the seats currently up for contest included much of its rural heartland, as it was fielding more candidates in total than each of the other parties.
The Conservatives have taken a hit, as expected. They look on track to lose all the gains made in 2015 and more. More of a surprise is Labour not making enough gains as it delivered the clearest message about their plan to reverse local cuts. The party will worry that this reflects their potential voters not focusing on local austerity and the demise of services, but more on their lack of party unity over Brexit.
Most smaller parties have done better. The Liberal Democrats are recovering councils and seats lost when they exited the coalition government in 2015. This may be a part vindication of their approach to local issues and their clear stand on Brexit as a party of Remain. But this issue will be more properly tested later in May, in elections for the European Parliament. The Greens are also gaining local councillors, but on a small scale from a small base. Similarly, “independents” who seek to represent local issues over national ones, have gained councillors.
As for UKIP, it is losing some seats gained in 2015 and will now fear its ability to represent leave voters at the European elections. It looks increasingly likely to become the second party of choice for Leave voters after the new Brexit party. That new party seems clear that it’s a national single-issue movement and did not contest local council seats. UKIP has failed to be taken seriously enough about representing local issues.
There is a bit more evidence of local elections reflecting local issues than back in 2015, when the local elections happened at the same time as the general election. But there also looks to be an element of Brexit views influencing Remain and Leave areas of the country.
One thing is sure, the long-standing and worsening crises for local government finance and services is going to need some serious attention at all political levels once the Brexit matter is concluded.