The local elections in May 2017 were the Conservative Party’s best result in a decade, gaining almost 600 extra councillors across the country and pulling off upset victories in the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoral races.
The stage looked set for a decent Conservative majority in the General Election a month later but, as we know, this was not to be.
One year on, 151 councils and 6 mayoral elections will take place on May 3rd. What are the significant areas to look out for and what could this tell us about the current state of each party?
All the seats in London’s 32 borough councils will be up for election, along with four directly elected borough mayors in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Whereas UK-wide polls consistently show the parties more or less level, a recent YouGov survey found that 54% of Londoners intend to vote Labour, compared to just 28% for the Conservatives.
This would put the Opposition Party’s vote share at the highest any party has achieved in London council elections since 1968. It would potentially mean the loss of at least 3 of the 10 boroughs currently held by the Tories including the flagship councils of Wandsworth and Westminster.
This is hardly surprising given that in the General Election Labour gained 4 parliamentary seats and increased their vote share in 71 of London’s 73 constituencies, while the Conservatives lost 6 seats and gained vote share in only 24 constituencies.
A report by the pollster, Lord Ashcroft, shows large parts of the London electorate are tired of Brexit (59.9% voted to remain) and angry about the impact of public spending cuts. Conservatives will be disappointed that on one of their core positions, only three in 10 voters across London see them as the party of low council tax. Only 18 per cent of voters in Tory-run boroughs think they deliver on their boast of lower bills and better services, and six in 10 Londoners, including three in 10 Tories, disapprove of the Government’s record.
But What’s Going on Elsewhere?
Predictably, the Capital has consumed the focus of political analysts at the expense of bellwether local elections further afield.
Four metropolitan boroughs, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle upon Tyne, will take part in ‘all-out’ elections with all their council seats contested, while 30 others across the UK will have a third of their seats up for election.
Sheffield will get its first directly elected mayor with the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and previously (pre-Corbyn) tipped future Party leader, Dan Jarvis, hoping for the Party’s nomination.
One unitary authority, Kingston upon Hull, will also stage an all-out election. A further 16 others will have a third of their seats contested.
Outside of the urban centres seven non-metropolitan districts will engage in all-outs, including the former Liberal Democrat stronghold of Eastleigh and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd’s, constituency of Hastings while over 60 others will have partial council elections.
Why Does It Matter?
The Conservatives are expecting a bad election night in London. The only question is, how bad? The loss of the ‘crown jewels’ of Westminster and Wandsworth might well re-ignite speculation about May’s position, but might this be balanced by results outside of the Capital.
Labour controls all the metropolitan city councils which will be contested. Both Manchester and Newcastle councils are Tory-free zones but might there be further evidence of traditional Labour voters switching to the Tories out of dislike for Corbyn and support for Brexit as was seen at the General Election in some northern areas? The impact of Labour’s support for remaining in a customs union will be put to the test in Leave-voting constituencies.
If there is any sort of Lib Dem revival it may be seen in Newcastle and Hull where they have previously controlled the Council and are still the main opposition. Certainly they believe they are on the up and point to recent council by-elections as evidence where they are up a net 17 seats with the Tories down 11 and Labour flat.
Although it is likely that Labour will be celebrating on May 4th, as Teresa May found out last year, they would be mistaken to assume that this means they are on the path to regaining power nationally.
The Prime Minister cannot be accused of using the recent Ministerial re-shuffle to seek to gag Brexiteers by bringing them into the government’s ‘payroll’ vote.
Given that before the June election last year there was only a slight majority within the Conservative Parliamentary Party for Remain, a breakdown of the cohort of 44 PPSs following the reshuffle shows a much more significant gap between Remainers and Brexiteers. 59% of those appointed in January were for staying and 41% for leaving. This marks only a small increase in the proportion of Brexiteers who made up 35% of PPSs prior to the reshuffle, but not enough for May to be accused of seeking to bind potential hard line Brexit rebels by making them subject to collective government discipline.
If you add to the ‘payroll’ group the 16 MPs appointed as trade envoys, the disparity is just as significant with 38% of these being Brexiteers and the majority at 63% being Remainers.
Perhaps Theresa May sees the need to keep Remainers close given their concern at what they perceive as the PM’s seeking to appease the hard-Brexiteers with her statements about not being a part of any customs union, no role for the ECJ and no compromise on freedom of movement during the transition phase.
Remainers might choose to argue that is a reflection of the calibre of the MPs within the two groups.
There is some redress for Brexiteers with 3 of those appointed straight from the backbenches to a Ministerial job being leavers and only one a stayer.
Nearly one year on from Britain invoking Article 50, negotiations will shortly begin over the transition period and Britain’s future outside the bloc. While the broad outline and timetable for Brexit has been agreed, now the real deal will be ironed out.
Brexit rhetoric will need to meet businesses reality.
With so many of the discussions around Brexit having been dominated by such macro issues as the size of the divorce bill, the Irish border and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, it has been hard for individual companies to see any role they could have in helping to determine future arrangements which could significantly impact their operations. As a result there has been relatively little engagement from business outside of calls for clarity and warnings of a potential cliff edge.
Now is the critical moment for that to change.
Britain will spend the next few months ironing out the transition deal; the period under which existing EU rules and regulations would apply before moving on to the nature of a future trading arrangement covering, it is hoped, both goods and services.
This is now the time that we get down to detail, which opens the door for companies and trade associations to seek to shape the impact the future deal will have on them.
The Government doesn’t just need to be made aware of what the implications will be for different sectors of the economy; it wants to be made aware.
If the release of the infamous Brexit impact assessments taught us anything, it’s that there is a massive lack of awareness within Government of the impact of Brexit on each industrial sector. This should not be surprising. Although both DExEU and DIT have been increasing their staffing, there is still a very limited resource available within Government to understand all the implications. This throws the onus onto business to fill this gap.
Companies and trade bodies can hardly complain when they feel that Ministers have not fully grasped what is required for them to continue to thrive post-Brexit if they have not taken every step to ensure that they have communicated this.
Rather than wait for Brexit to happen to them, companies need to seize the initiative and communicate what they specifically require from the future arrangement with the EU.
This value of business making representations to policy makers can already be seen in the evidence House of Commons Select Committees have been gathering.
The fisheries industry warned about potential barriers to trade, but also how delays could affect supplies of fresh catches and the need to employ seasonal fishing labour.
Representatives from the automotive industry told MPs that Brexit will affect issues ranging from vehicle authorisation to the costs of the potential delays of importing car components.
The Chemical Business Association stated that the adoption of the main elements of the industry’s regulatory framework into UK law was the most pragmatic and cost-effective way forward.
Companies across Britain communicating these concerns will allow Ministers, MPs and civil servants to make better informed decisions.
Civil servants and politicians have told us that the Government has never been more open to wanting to hear the voice of individual companies. BEIS is sending officials around the country to gather intelligence. They are attending major business events and are openly inviting representatives of companies and trade bodies to come in to talk to them in Victoria Street.
This is particularly true of companies with EU-based plants and businesses, with Government eager to know what Brexit will mean for their operations abroad.
The EU Withdrawal Bill also represents a vital opportunity to influence the outcome of Brexit.
While the Bill is intended to cut and paste existing EU rules and regulations into UK law, in the aftermath the detail of these will need to be reviewed to see if they are fit for purpose.
Companies and trade associations should use this opportunity to make informed representations over which regulations should be kept, thrown out or amended for better effect. The earlier these messages are conveyed, the better the chance they will have to influence the business environment in which they operate.
For those who choose not to, there is no guarantee that competitors and rivals will be quite so apathetic.
So far the reality of Brexit has been difficult for businesses and government to grasp, but for companies their future outside the EU is dependent on the next phase. The devil will lie in the detail.
Now is the time to make your voice heard.
The Conservative Party has acknowledged that it struggled to engage with the under-45s at the last election and that not only students, but young, and even more middle aged, professionals, didn’t feel that the Party had an offer for them.
The new, 27 year old Mansfield MP, Ben Bradley, has set out to address this problem head on, gathering together a group of MPs under the age of 35 to create a more relatable face of the Tory Party in a bid to appeal to younger voters.
As well as acting as a sounding board for policies and feeding in their own ideas, the group will also put forward spokespeople to engage with voters through channels other than the Today programme. Given the Government’s lack of a majority, Bradley has suggested that the group could hold sway on a number of key issues if it votes in a block.
Speaking in a Times interview, he said: “I consider myself as relatively normal as you can be for an MP,” and described the new crop of MPs as coming from “normal backgrounds, not the posh, landed gentry as the stereotype would suggest”.
We take a look into their backgrounds to find out how representative they really are.
Of the 16 MPs who have signed up to Bradley’s group so far, only 3 (18%) are female, compared to 51% of the UK population, 21% of the whole Conservative parliamentary party and 32% of the House of Commons. On this first count, then, not so representative.
Whilst 29% of all UK educated MPs are educated privately, for Conservative MPs this rises to 45% compared to just 7% of the UK population. Of the group of under 35’s for whom the information is available, just 4 out of the 16 went to private school. As only a quarter of the group, they are more ‘normal’ than the Party’s MPs as a whole and marginally more so than the House of Commons overall.
Moving on to university education, again, only 4 (25%) of the group went to Oxbridge, with three of these the same MPs who were educated privately. This compares to 31% of all Conservative MPs and 24% of MPs overall. However, less than 1% of the UK population attends either university.
More generally, all but 2 of the MPs in the ‘youth’ block attended university, 88%. This is in line with the 87% of MPs who are UK university graduates. In 2015/16, the rate of participation in higher education in the UK was 49%. Whilst there are not yet figures for the number of current MPs who either studied or practiced law before standing for election, analysis of the 2015 Parliament from BPP University Law School found that 119 of the 650 MPs fell into this group, making up almost one fifth of the House of Commons.
Of Bradley’s group, 5 had a legal career prior to their election, representing almost a third.
A criticism often levied at MPs is that they have no experience of the ‘real world’, having been career politicians working only ever as researchers or holding party positions.
Of the MPs in this group, only 3 have worked exclusively in politics, although 7 of the 16 have been local councillors. Of the rest, apart from the law, their careers range from working as a store manager for Lidl to marketing, publishing, manufacturing, accountancy, working as a dairyman and being in the Royal Navy.
Bradley himself has a ‘relatively normal’ background, having dropped out of the University of Bath and then later completing a degree at Nottingham Trent with stints as a gardener, in hospitality, retail and recruitment before standing to be an MP.
Overall on relatability, Bradley’s group performs better than the Party as a whole when looking at private schooling and education and they have a more varied range of work experience than you might expect from MPs. Compared to the population as a whole though, they are still disproportionately white (only 2 are from BME backgrounds – Bim Afolami and Alan Mak), male, and university educated.
On age at least, the Group are certainly much better placed to talk about the problems of housing, student debt and career uncertainty facing the ‘millennials’, given that they have recent first-hand experience to draw on. Indeed one of the group, 29 year old Will Wragg MP, drew press attention last year when he revealed he was forced to move back in with his parents whilst he saves for a deposit. Sending these MPs out to talk about such issues might resonate more with younger voters than hearing from older Conservative Party members, the average age of which ConHome recently found was 57.
With Parliament having gone again into recess after two weeks of being dominated by Brexit debate and position papers (or their delay), we escape the Westminster bubble to look at the work of the Metro Mayors.
Although somewhat less headline grabbing, the six new leaders have been working away quietly in the background since their election four months ago; appointing their top teams and implementing real policy change.
The Mayors received a brief glimpse in the spotlight when Philip Hammond went on a recent tour of the northern contingent meeting the Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Liverpool’s Steve Rotherham and the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen for the first time since their elections.
The Chancellor’s visit was part of the Government’s effort to rebut criticism that it has downgraded the Northern Powerhouse as he sought to emphasise the Government’s support for increasing productivity in the region, something that he said was even more important in light of Brexit.
Looking at the total number of ministerial meetings the Mayors had in their first 100 days, the Conservative Party’s golden boy, Andy Street, was miles ahead at 15, compared to the others who averaged just under 5 each.
In their first 100 days:
Cambridge and Peterborough
Liverpool City Region
West of England
Investment in skills has been a common theme in the Mayors’ initial policy action. Since taking office, all Mayors have launched dedicated new funded employment schemes, apprenticeships programmes or wider adult skills investment.
Housing has also been a prominent area of action. Steve Palmer has announced £4.65m in grant funding for 11 developments, Ben Houchen has established a Mayoral land commission to support his pledge for a new garden village, Andy Street has outlined a plan to unlock land for new housing developments and Andy Burnham has pledged more funds to tackle homelessness.
Whilst all Mayors have similarly been pursuing improvements in local connectivity, this has been particularly prevalent in the north, where at a transport summit in Leeds, a new ‘Council of the North’ was called for to demand a fair funding deal from the Government to help rebalance the economy and ensure the Government honours the promises it has already made on improving rail infrastructure. This comes as the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (headed by its architect, George Osborne) launched its campaign for Northern Powerhouse Rail; a plan to bring seven million more people within a 90 minute journey time of leading northern cities.
Following the appointment of their teams, the gender imbalance has attracted criticism.
The gender issue stems from the fact that the constitution of Combined Authorities (which gives Mayors their powers) requires that portfolio holder positions are given to its members. As a recent LGA report found, councils need some 12,000 more women councillors to close the gender gap, with only 17% of council leaders female.
This means that of the Mayor’s appointed Deputy Mayors (usually a council leader of a constituent authority), only Andy Burnham has appointed a female.
In his manifesto, Burnham uniquely committed to address the huge gender imbalance in the combined authority. The authority’s revised constitution, agreed at the end of June, now requires cabinet members to appoint a deputy of a different gender.
Steve Rotherham has also spoken out about the problem and has since made further, female appointments including a ‘Fairness Tsar’ in the form of the TUC Regional Secretary, Lynn Collins.
Focusing on business, in addition to allocating key roles to the leaders of the seven metropolitan authorities that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street has also proposed a Business Advisory Group made up of representatives from the Chambers of Commerce, CBI and Institute of Directors. He has highlighted how important he thinks it is to hear the “voice of business” on the WMCA as Brexit negotiations get underway (unsurprising given his former role as John Lewis MD). The CBI has lobbied all of the Mayors to set up such groups but so far Street is the only one to have pledged to do so. Despite his focus on housing and regeneration and skills and productivity, at the time of writing, Street has yet to appoint strategic directors in these areas.
Whilst the Mayors have been progressing policy for their respective areas, the LGA finds it has been over 18 months since any new devolution deals were agreed, despite many areas being keen to press forward with negotiations.
With the Prime Minister’s former advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill reported to have repeatedly blocked progress in this area, it is likely that we may see a return to the devolution agenda in the coming months with Yorkshire the main focus of attention.
After the first 4 weeks of the new Parliament who are the keenest new MPs?
Analysis of the number of debates an MP has spoken in and the number of written and oral questions answered give an early insight into who are the most active new MPs in this Parliament.
Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru; Ceredigion) and David Linden (SNP; Glasgow East) lead the scoring in the number of written questions, with 43 and 40 respectively. Lake’s hyperactivity in the House can be explained by his far-reaching responsibilities as his party’s spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Education, Skills, Health, Communities and Local Government, Culture, Media and Sport and Constitutional Affairs.
Linden, who has experience working for the SNP in Holyrood, Brussels and Westminster, represents some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK in his Glasgow East constituency. The levels of deprivation experienced by his constituents help to explain his activity in questioning the DWP on child poverty, the Carers Allowance and social security.
The two MPs are aged just 24 and 27, though their similarities do not end here. Lake holds a very fragile majority of 104 whilst the 12.1% swing to Labour in Glasgow East gave Linden a majority of just 75 votes. However, disparity exists between the two in terms of the number of oral questions asked with Lake only having made 3 spoken contributions compared to Linden’s 25.
The Labour MP, Luke Pollard, whose Plymouth Sutton and Devonport constituency represents an island of red in an otherwise blue sea in the South West, has already spoken in 13 debates and received a healthy 27 answers to written questions. Improving transport to and around the South West, raising the issue of autism, and standing firmly against defence cuts to the Royal Navy are all topics in which he has shown particular interest.
The Conservative Party duo of Rachel Maclean (Redditch) and Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) rank as the highest in terms of the number of debates spoken in with 15 and 19 contributions respectively. ‘Redditch Rachel’, as her twitter handle reads, can be expected to take particular interest in issues affecting young people throughout the course of the Parliament. As part of a career helping young people she arrived as an MP having started her charity, Skilled and Ready, which aims to link the skills needed by local employers to the school curriculum.
Ford, drawing upon her 8 years of experience as a Member of the European Parliament, has wasted no time in engaging in debate in her new workplace having been the first of the 2017 intake to make her maiden speech. Notably in 2016, Ford was ranked as one of the top ten most influential members of the European Parliament by Politico Europe, particularly for her work on digital policy.
Not to be forgotten, the Liberal Democrats can also boast of having one the most active new MPs. Layla Moran, who wrestled Oxford West and Abingdon from the Conservative Nicola Blackwood, is another MP who has a narrow margin of victory hanging over her head at 816. The first Member of Parliament of Palestinian descent is expected to continue her early activity, especially as she is the Education spokesperson for her party in the Commons.
Activity is not necessarily a measurement of talent or promise for the future. Although having no written answers and speaking in just 3 debates, the MP already being highlighted as the first amongst equals and even talked about as a potential future Leader of their party is Kemi Badenoch (Conservative, Saffron Waldon). She has received praise from a number of commentators, notably Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, the publication for which Badenoch was Head of Digital, who said “she’s a rare combination: an original thinker, a robust debater and someone who defies all kinds of caricatures”.
These are still early days and some future leading lights may just be learning their role and biding their time before emerging as the stars of the 2017 intake.
The first sign of trouble for the Tories came just 20 minutes after Theresa May had launched her manifesto in our backyard of West Yorkshire. There was a phone in on Radio Leeds, which attracts an older than average audience, and caller after caller expressed concern that they might be losing their heating allowance. Although the presenter fairly pointed out that it would be means tested and was designed to target wealthier people, nonetheless, the anxiety that this had aroused was obvious, and this just minutes after the announcement.
It proved the stupidity of announcing half a policy with no figures to reassure those who were probably in no danger of having their allowance taken away.
This concern was immediately reflected on the doorstep alongside great unhappiness and anxiety that people would lose their home to pay for social care. Again, the headline was what cut through and not the detail, but that is elementary political communication. Despite the quick U turn, the damage was done and many votes from traditional supporters were lost.
It is true that before this, it was not uncommon for people, even previously habitual Labour voters, to say that they liked Theresa May. She did indeed appear strong and stable, they said. Not once was this heard after the social care debacle. Her reputation was destroyed overnight.
A further damaging pledge was to have a vote in Government time and on a Government Bill on foxhunting. The initial pledge came in response to a question asked by a reporter when May was in West Yorkshire (ironically in the constituency of an MP passionately opposed to fox hunting). For once May gave a direct answer, that there would be a vote. It should have been foreseen that this would be translated on the doorstep as the Tories would bring back foxhunting, which is exactly how it was seen, being mentioned by a surprising number of people and causing countless lost votes.
It is not just on policy that the Conservatives made mistakes. In line with the digital age, elections have become more scientific, making use of the increasingly huge amount of marketing and online data that is available about us all. This is used to target people with letters from the party leaders. Conservative headquarters took this to a new level and were too clever by half. Constituencies were sent lists of specific voters to be targeted and directions that only these should be canvassed on pain of recriminations if this was ignored.
Many Conservative Associations have only a very small number of people who can be called on to go and knock on doors. It is vital to use this resource as efficiently as possible to get round as many voters as possible to identify your supporters so you can urge them to go and vote on polling day. The result of the Conservative campaign approach was that hours of canvassing time was wasted by volunteers standing around trying to find individual houses and walking past all the other houses which went unapproached to only seek out the designated targets. It was all the more galling for volunteers to find when they got there that many of these supposed likely Conservative voters were lifelong Labour or even Lib Dem voters. This inaccurate targeting showed up on polling day when many of those being ‘knocked up’ were indeed going to vote, but not for Theresa May.
It was an incredibly inefficient use of man and women power.
What made it worse was that it was clear early on that there were people switching from Labour to the Conservatives, mostly older and lower income voters. This presented an opportunity for the Conservatives to move into areas where they may not usually gain support and probably had been rarely seen during elections. A canvasser coming to your door can be that last incentive to change your voting habit, particularly if it’s the first time a Conservative has bothered to turn up in your street. If instead of being selective, every house in a street was canvassed, not only would the data on polling day have been much more accurate, but quite a few more voters might have made the switch.
There were other reasons why a 20% plus poll lead was reduced to an inconclusive 2.4% vote lead including an over-reliance on negative campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn, concern over the NHS and less than inspiring performances from the Prime Minister.
That is of course over-laid with the positive reasons that attracted an increase in the number of people voting Labour, but without the self-inflicted harm by the Conservatives, they would not have been enough to prevent May increasing her majority.
With a highly predictable result many would expect the political analysis of GE2017 to have already run dry, so the political commentators would have been relieved to have so much material from the local elections to chew over.
The story was of course of a comprehensive Conservative victory. They took control of 11 more councils across the country, gained 563 councillors, won four of the six mayoral contests and all but wiped out UKIP. The Liberal Democrats fightback proved to be limited and, as expected by many, Labour felt the ricochet of the national opinion polls losing 382 councillors.
The big question is what do they tell us about what to expect on 8th June?
First comes the caveat that the turnout was much lower than it should be for the General Election. Turnout for the council elections was about average across the board at around 30%. The mayoral elections don’t seem to have inspired people to come out in huge numbers with the turnout varying from 21% in Tees Valley to 33% in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. There were reports from canvassers of a lack of awareness but also of some not seeing the point of the whole institution. There were even some who, when pressed to go and vote on polling day, thought that the election was on 8th June.
This could presage a low turnout at the general election if people consider the outcome is a forgone conclusion combined with disillusioned Labour voters possibly choosing to stay at home.
Overall the total vote share diminished Theresa May’s poll lead of around 19 points to 11, although still enough for a very comfortable majority.
Delve a little deeper and there are some interesting results across the key battlegrounds of the North which indicate a mixed picture for the General Election.
In terms of individual results, the Conservatives took control of Derbyshire County Council with 37 seats to Labours 24. At first glance this may not seem significant as the Conservatives held control up until 2013 and in the 11 constituencies that make up Derbyshire, 7 are Conservative. In one of the remaining Labour seats, NE Derbyshire which the Party has represented at Westminster since 1935, though, more people voted Tory (44%) than Labour (40%). Given the majority in 2015 had fallen to 1,883, it looks like Derby South, Chesterfield and Dennis Skinner’s seat may be the only red ones left in the county.
Across the border in Nottinghamshire, Tories won control of the county council with a vote share of 38.1% compared with Labour’s 34.5%.
In the County’s most marginal Labour seat of Gedling, Labour won a very slim majority of the vote share with 43.9% compared to 42.4% for the Conservatives, which represented a large 13.7 points increase for them. With a majority of 2,986, the former MP, Vernon Coaker, will be hoping that this momentum can be halted.
There was little joy for the Tories in the mayoral results in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region. On a day when the Tories seemed to be challenging Labour’s hegemony in the North, Manchester held firm as a Labour redoubt with no sign of a Tory revival with them winning only 6 out of the 215 wards. Even in Bury North, won by the Tories in 2015 by 378 votes, Labour secured a 23 points lead and in Bolton North East, also won by the Conservatives in 2015 with a 4,377 majority, there was a 29 points lead for Andy Burnham.
The low turnout and the fact that people were voting for a high profile individual will have skewed the results to the extent that to take them as an indicator of Labour’s potential success on June 8th would be misleading and overly optimistic.
In Tees Valley, Ben Houchen’s win is a different story. A councillor rather than an MP and a Conservative, rather than Labour in a Combined Authority dominated by Labour politicians, Houchen’s win will without doubt raise concerns amongst Labour candidates across the region. This will especially be the case in Labour held Darlington where more people voted Conservative than Labour (42% to 33%) leaving Jenny Chapman on a 3,158 majority with a reason to feel nervous.
Just from these snapshots it is apparent that although there is definitely a tide which is sweeping UKIP away to the benefit of the Conservatives and encouraging former traditional Labour voters to switch to support Theresa May, it is not everywhere. There will likely be some dramatic results on 8th June but it is unlikely to be the wholesale conversion of all traditional Labour areas to the Tories. There are still enough people in the North for whom voting Tory is anathema.
Whatever the outcome, something can be guaranteed, the media coverage will be constant, the campaigners will be at our doors and David Dimbleby will have bought a new suit.
Amidst all the frenzy of the General Election campaign starting, it is easy to forget that in many parts of the country voters will go to the polls on 4th May.
Almost 5,000 council seats will be up for grabs across England, Wales and Scotland, along with 6 new directly elected metro mayors with enhanced powers.
It is more usual for local elections and a general election to be held on the same day. Having the local elections a month before polling day is likely to have two impacts. One will be that with so much focus on the national scene, people are less likely to vote on local issues and will vote the same way as they intend to in the General Election. The second will be to act as a very direct test of political opinion, more effective than the polls, and may affect the way people vote at the general.
For Labour, the predictions look grim with suggestions that across Britain they could lose up to 200 council seats including around 100 seats in the once electorally safe Wales. To add to the misery, John Curtice of Strathclyde University has suggested Labour might lose control of the four councils it currently holds in Scotland as well.
Council defeats on the scale predicted would sap morale still further from a party in a weaker position than it was even under Michael Foot. It could dispirit some Labour voters to the extent that they do not bother to turn out to vote on 8th June.
Although the results may confirm what the polls indicate, that Jeremy Corbyn is a liability who needs to go, for many in the party the tactic is to sit and wait so that Corbyn is firmly able to ‘own’ any potential defeat.
For the Conservatives, increases in the number of council seats on a significant scale would undoubtedly prove a boost to the General Election campaign for members and candidates across the country. But don’t expect huge celebrations from Theresa May, who will want to dampen any suggestion that her path back to Downing Street is signed, sealed and practically delivered already. She will want to avoid giving any impression of complacency.
For the Lib Dems, who have made steady progress in council by-elections since 2015, it is not necessarily how many council seats they win on 4th May but where they win them. Eyes therefore should be turned to counties such as Devon, Somerset and Cornwall to establish if the party can realistically expect to regain Parliamentary seats in what was once its heartland.
UKIP meanwhile now battles for relevance. The last time these seats were contested the party increased the number of council seats it held by 139. This time they are fielding fewer candidates (contesting just 48% of council seats this compared to the 73% of seats they stood in four years ago) and the fear for them will be that a bad result will only encourage supporters to desert the party at the general and switch, probably predominantly to the Conservatives, or revert, where applicable, to being non-voters.
Whatever happens, expect much more media commentary on the local elections than ever before and possibly a high turnout with the possibility that some people think this is the General Election.
With just weeks to go before the notification to trigger Article 50 is expected, the official line from the EU institutions is that plans and staff are in place and Brussels and the EU27 are prepared. The EU Commission has a set of negotiation scenarios primed and believes that the EU will enjoy a home-field advantage as talks commence in Brussels. Publicly, all three institutions, the Commission, Council and Parliament, as well as the 27 other member states are firm that they have a joint position on how Brexit should unfold and what could be offered to the UK.
Yet, how long this line will hold remains to be seen. The novelty and multitude of actors on the EU side leaves much uncertainty remaining about how exactly the Article 50 process will unfold, and national political leaders at times, perhaps understandably considering major forthcoming elections in the Netherlands, France Germany, appear more focused on pleasing domestic audiences than reaching a European agreement.
Michel Barnier, heading up the technical negotiations from the Commission, will face additional hurdles as he tries to lead the EU in the divorce proceedings compared with his opposite number, the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Mr Barnier’s mandate from the EU Heads of States, to be received during a special summit in April 2017, won’t prevent him having to regularly report back to ministers and political leaders for guidance and coordination whilst navigating the mine-field of 27 national interests.
From informal meetings and sources, we know that much of Mr Barnier’s initial focus will rest on agreeing the UK’s financial commitments and securing citizens’ rights. On the former, Mrs May’s spokesperson has confirmed that the final number will be up for discussion in formal talks, whilst on the latter issue, the British have similarly made clear their desire to secure reciprocal status. Failure to date on this front could hint at differences already beginning to show, not between Britain and the EU Commission, but among the Commission and some Member States.
What also appears clear from statements made already is that the priority in Brussels after the notification of Article 50 will be on securing key terms of the divorce before any talks on a future trade deal take place. Here, though, London’s approach to date seems to be to ignore this. Similarly, on timeframes, Mr Barnier perceives Mrs May’s 2 year deadline to be unrealistic, whilst Jean-Claude Juncker has said: “I do not think…we will succeed within 24 months to clear up the arrangements for Britain’s exit from the EU and to (forge) the whole relationship between Britain and the European continent”. Both the UK government and UK companies might do well to prepare for the talks to take longer before any future trade relationships are agreed.
The difficult relation
And then there is also the EU Parliament, which while nominally only having a final yes-or-no vote on the deal, will be closely involved in the process to ensure that a final agreement is passed with MEPs. The Parliament has designated the extreme pro-Europe, Belgium Liberal Guy Verhofstadt as its lead negotiator. He will be supported by a group of experienced MEPs to provide the views of their respective political groups, and political group chairs and Committees will have input to ensure that the Parliament’s view is reflected in the EU Commission’s negotiation approach. This leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings, political maneuvering and general dissent within the EU, and one does not have to look far to find it. Perhaps the words of the influential German MEP Manfred Weber most clearly demonstrate that the EU’s biggest challenge in this divorce may just come from within:
“Frankly speaking there is a mandate from the European Commission for Michel Barnier, but not a mandate from the European Parliament … When I have a look on the content and at the topics on the table, for me it is still a mission impossible ahead of us that we can manage this. This will create a lot of damage, especially for the Brits for sure”.