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

Local elections 2021: Look behind the big story


After last week’s elections, the results paint a complex picture for local government. In his latest column for The Municipal Journal, Jonathan Carr-West argues that they tell us more about the influence of local issues – not just national politics – and that dividing the country into convenient blocs can often obscure what’s really happening.

The big story everyone is focusing on in these elections is the shift from Labour to the Conservatives, and the results (and the media coverage) certainly make grim reading for Labour HQ. But this obscures what is a more varied and complex picture. If we look under the bonnet, the results actually tell us a lot about the influence of local issues and the importance of place.

It’s clear that the Conservatives are consolidating their position in Red Wall and non-metropolitan areas. As well as significant victories in Hartlepool and the Tees Valley mayoralty, they have taken control of 13 councils and won 235 seats overwhelmingly at the expense of Labour. The swing against Labour has been concentrated in those seats last contested in 2016 and not in 2017, suggesting that last week’s results are a continuation of an existing trend in British politics rather than a sudden shift.

These results will have a real impact on local areas. It will reinforce the Government’s commitment to the ‘levelling up’ agenda but is also likely to strengthen the Government’s preference for driving this through targeted interventions and grant funding. This will be disempowering for local government as a whole and will be particularly concerning for places that do not neatly fit the ‘levelling up’ profile (many of them Conservative voting areas in the South East with pockets of severe deprivation).

A closer look at the results reveals a more complex picture and suggests that a centrally driven levelling up agenda would be an error. Underneath the headlines, more complex local stories are bubbling away.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while losing seats nationally, have made gains, some of them substantial, in many areas. There are very faint shoots of a Labour recovery in the South East is precisely the sort of areas that fall outside the levelling up pattern.

Meanwhile, the Greens have doubled their seats with gains in places as different as Sheffield, Bristol and Suffolk. Independents were predicted to struggle because of restrictions on campaigning but they have also done well from Castle Point to Surrey, tipping more than one council into No Overall Control.

To really understand these local stories you would have to get into the detail of each place but it should remind us that dividing the country into convenient blocs: red walls, leave vs remain, can often obscure what’s really happening.

Another feature of these elections that may come to seem most significant in the long run is the political coming of age of the metro mayors.

When these roles were created by George Osborne as the price of devolution in 2015 there seemed little demand for them. Most of these cities had voted against having an elected mayor in referenda less than a decade before.

Yet many of the incumbents have created a distinct political brand for themselves; often with little reference to their national political party. Andy Burnham has promoted a distinctive political identity for Manchester, Ben Houchen a form of pragmatic Teesside Toryism and Andy Street a managerial brand of retail (forgive the pun) politics.

Both parties will find something to celebrate in the mayoral elections. The Conservatives will be delighted by Ben Houchen’s huge win and by Andy Street increasing his vote share. For Labour, resounding wins for Steve Rotherham in Liverpool and Andy Burnham in Manchester will be a relief and gaining the West of England and especially Cambridge and Peterborough will be a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy set of results.

But the truth is these results don’t have much to do with national politics. They’re about local leadership, local identity, civic pride and representation; they’re about delivery politics from the ground up. It’s striking that Burnham, Houchen, and Street all say quite similar things about the importance of place and getting things done.

The creation of metro mayors has been one of the big structural and constitutional innovations in this country over the last ten years. Central government’s attitude toward them has been ambiguous at times. On the evidence of these results, though, they are very much here to stay. Across the country, we have seen voters rewarding a focus on delivering and speaking up for the places they live and work in.

This suggests that the Government needs to take a very different approach to levelling up; one that is based on giving local leaders the tools they need to develop and deliver local political and economic agendas that respond to the needs and aspirations of their communities.

If we want places to be levelled up and to stay levelled up, we need to empower them through genuine devolution, not through sporadic government patronage. The lesson that both government and opposition should take from these elections is that place matters and empowering people and places brings electoral reward.

Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGIU. The article was first published in The Municipal Journal


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