Local elections 2022: What Tories can learn from 2021 vote when Labour’s red wall crumbled

Parties to 'focus on local elections' before partygate says expert

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On May 5, voters in England, Wales, and Scotland will decide who they want to run their local services as the nations go to the polls for the local elections. In England alone, more than 4,350 seats are up for grabs at over 140 councils across the country. Since the last time most of the seats were contested in 2018, Boris Johnson has become Tory leader and Prime Minister.

Under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the party made major inroads at the 2021 local elections, gaining seats in all English regions apart from Greater London, and the South East.

However, this time around, the political landscape has shifted, as the Tories’ stable image has been dented by the cost-of-living crisis, as well as the ‘Partygate’ scandal over Covid lockdown-busting events held at Downing Street.

Amid the challenges for the Tories this year, a new analysis of last year’s votes by two of the country’s top political minds has zeroed in on the Conservatives’ triumphs in Labour’s traditional heartlands of the North and the Midlands, often dubbed the ‘red wall’.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of the Election Centre, published their ‘Local Elections Handbook 2021’ earlier this month.

In it, they explain how the Conservatives emerged as the largest party, taking 39 percent of seats, although the figure is down from its record of 46 percent in 2009.

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One of the councils the Conservatives won control of in the North was Northumberland, a unitary authority.

The authors picked out this Tory victory in a historic Labour heartland as one of the notable results of last year’s elections, which would have previously been unthinkable.

They wrote: “Northumberland too fell to the Conservatives, albeit by the smallest of margins, for the first time since its establishment as a two-tier county in 1973 and later transformation into a unitary council.”

Another significant win was the Tories regaining Nottinghamshire County Council.

The authors wrote: “After an eight-year absence the party regained majority control of Nottinghamshire, which Labour had lost to No Overall Control in 2016.”

The Conservatives’ successes followed Mr Johnson’s promises to “level up” parts of the North and the Midlands, which have been overlooked by the redevelopment plans of previous governments.

Voters in the North and the Midlands may have also been wooed to the Conservatives by Mr Johnson’s pledges to deliver on Brexit.

Many areas in the regions under Conservative control also backed the UK’s exit from the EU compared to places like London and Scotland that favoured Remain.

Following the 2021 results, Sir Keir Starmer took the blame for Labour’s poor performance.

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The Labour leader said he also accepted “full responsibility” for the Hartlepool by-election, as the seat was won by the Conservatives for the first time ever in May last year.

In their analysis of the local results, Mr Rallings and Mr Thrasher described Labour’s progress as “sluggish”.

They wrote: “Labour retains second position but its progress in winning seats remains sluggish, and some way short of the 48 percent of seat share it held in 1997.

“The number of independent councillors representing a myriad of smaller parties continues to grow.

“They now account for more than one in every seven seats and one must go back to 1982 to find a higher proportion.”

The ‘Local Elections Handbook 2021’ was written by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher and published by the House of Commons in 2022. It is available here.

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