The General Election result will have been a lot less surprising to anyone who’s been following local government elections over the last couple of years.
We have consistently seen the Conservative vote hold up better than predicted and Labour not losing much but failing to gain any ground outside London and the Northern Mets.
Looking at how people have actually voted in local elections rather than how they tell pollsters they are going to vote would have given us a much more accurate sense of what to expect.
This year we see that the local and national results are consistent with each other.
The Conservatives have made significant gains especially in Councils that were previously under No Overall Control like High Peak, Scarborough and Worcester: all very much “middle England” seats. They have also taken a handful of councils from Labour such as Amber Valley.
Labour have not lost a great deal but they’ve made virtually no gains either, though a late gain in Cheshire West and Chester will be some consolation.
For the Lib Dems it’s all pain. They now control even fewer councils than they have MPs. Given what a bad night they had though, they’ll have been hugely relieved to hang on in places like Eastleigh and South Lakeland.
UKIP looked like they were having a very disappointing night with nothing like the three figure gains of seats that we have seen in recent years, but then late in the day they took control of Thanet Council. In other parts of the country they have not seemed very engaged with the local government agenda, can they now turn themselves from a party of protest into a party of local government? The jury’s out.
Although there were few surprises, these local results will have a huge impact on UK politics over the next five years. After a crushing general election defeat Labour will enter a period of soul searching at national level, but that debate about purpose and policy must be shaped by the way in which the party operates in the large parts of the country that it actually runs.
For the Liberal Democrats it’s more a matter of survival. Decimated in parliament, their future as a party will depend in large measure on rebuilding at a local level but losing more than 300 councillors will make that task much more challenging.
With a majority Conservative government, it’s tempting to think that it will be just more of the same: a reset to 06 May. But there’s a huge opportunity for local government to seize and set the agenda. In the run up to the election, George Osborne was clear that he sees devolution as a key unfinished project for his second term. But to date that agenda, though positive, has been too narrow, too focused on cities, too circumscribed by the treasury, too much a Henry Ford style of devolution in which you can have any form of localism you want as long as it’s a combined authority with an elected mayor.
That’s led to frustration in many parts of the country, especially some of the big (Conservative) counties who are desperate for devolution but sceptical about the combined authority model. So what we need is a much more open, deal based model in which local areas put forward their own models for the devolution they need.
But that puts an onus on local authorities to come up with realistic, well grounded plans for devolution and to put in place the local partnerships they need to deliver it. Crucially these plans must be as much about what they can deliver better as about the extra powers they need.
At LGiU we hear a clear message from our members about what local government wants and needs: fiscal devolution, more power in the hands of councils and communities and respect (and space) from central government.
We have a government that talks a reasonable game in these regards; the challenge for all of us is to make it deliver.