England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Ambiguous outcomes

As the ballot boxes go back into storage and the dust begins to settle, it’s a good time to take stock of what we have learnt from last week’s local elections.

Before polling day, we identified some key questions into which the results might give us insight: how much is enough to represent real momentum for Labour? Will the Lib Dem’s survive in their local strongholds? Can UKIP do it again? And will councils that have been bold and innovative be rewarded or punished by the electorate?

With the results in, can we answer these questions? Well, yes…. and no. In each case there are incompatible but equally plausible stories we might tell.
For Labour anything over 400 seats gained would have been a clear triumph, anything less than 200 a disappointment. In the end they gained 338, towards the upper end of the ambiguous zone but still subject to interpretation. Moreover, it was very much a game of two halves: they seem to have lost a lot of votes to UKIP in the North, they did not make the sort of early progress they would have hoped in seats gained and will have been very disappointed to go backwards in Swindon.

But then in the early hours of Friday morning the London results started coming in and things began looking up for them: Merton, Croydon, and Redbridge were all targets but very far from assured. Hammersmith and Fulham was a real coup, Barnet a very near miss.

So two ways of looking at it: in London, spectacular; everywhere else, underwhelming.

The Liberal Democrats had a bad night. Disappointment at losing Kingston to the Conser-vatives will be tempered by relief at keeping Sutton, South Lakeland and Watford, remain-ing the largest party in Stockport and shutting UKIP out completely in Eastleigh. These re-sults will give them some hope of continuing to defy national popularity in their local strongholds.

On the other hand, they haemorrhaged seats and were effectively wiped out in Lambeth, Islington, Camden, Manchester and Liverpool. Their local activist base now looks to be massively damaged and by Friday evening, those that remained were being invited to sign the ‘step down Nick’ letter.

Incidentally, for their coalition partners the Conservatives, competing mainly outside their traditional areas of control, there were far fewer questions raised and, aside from Ham-mersmith and Fulham, it will be much easier to write these results off as mid-ish term elec-tions in places where they do not expect to do well.

Of course the big story is UKIP and for them it was on the face of things a triumph: 161 councillors gained, 25% of the popular vote outside London and, of course, that victory in the European elections. There’s no doubting the significance of this and no surprise that it’s being written up as a ‘political earthquake’ and a ‘new era of four party politics’.

Here too, however, there is another way of looking it. Taken as a story about number of seats won, it seems less significant. UKIP are making huge relative gains in their number of seats but they still have far less than the other parties. Taken as a story about political control, it is less significant still. UKIP do not control any local authorities.

Much of the media excitement ignores the fact that in a first past the post system, UKIP cannot convert their vote share into power. One can’t help suspecting UKIP supporters mainly voted against AV in the 2011 referendum. Perhaps they regret it now?

So if the test is, do UKIP look like an influential force in British politics, the answer is yes. But if the test is, will any councils be doing anything differently this week as a result of the UKIP surge the answer is no.

What this should remind us, is that these elections are not actually about national politics, they’re about local power, about who governs local areas and how. We hear all too little about this from a Westminster fixated media, but that’s what really matters.

So how far did voters reward innovation in local government? In reality it’s very hard to say. Labour consolidated their power in the co-operative councils, Lambeth and Oldham and the Conservatives hung on, by the skin of their teeth in Barnet. Conversely, the tri-borough initiative, one of the most high profile local government innovations of recent years, must now be in doubt following the Conservative’s loss of Hammersmith and Ful-ham.

So there are competing narratives in answer to all our big questions. It’s tempting to try and square them away, but it’s a temptation we should resist. Simple stories may be at-tractive but perhaps ambiguity is a better guide to the real complexities of the political landscape in which we find ourselves.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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