IPPR North researcher Lewis Goodall reflects on the 2012 local election results in Northern England.
Councillor Ron Round may well have earned the title of Generalissimo of English local government: he has the distinction of leading England’s sole one party state.
Last Thursday, the final four Lib Dem survivors on Knowsley council were knobbled by a Labour tidal wave which leaves all 63 councillors sporting the red rosette.
Knowsley is perhaps the best example of the continued ‘labourisation’ of Northern local politics. Labour has gained 260 seats across the North: from the Mersey to Manchester, from Tameside to the Tyne, the political map of northern England has been shaded an even deeper shade of crimson.
Labour has taken councils like Sefton which have never hitherto been controlled by the party. Of the councils with elections a week ago, Labour now have 1,737 councillors – an increase of some 260. They control 34 of those 45 councils and 7 of those are fresh skin.
Though Knowsley was alone in the unanimity of its verdict, others got pretty close. In Barnsley, Labour landed 52 out of 63 seats, and 50 out of 64 seats in Doncaster.
Conversely, the strange decline of Tory Northern England has continued apace. The Conservatives lost 122 seats or around 20% of their representation in the councils up for grabs this time in Northern regions. They have done nothing to arrest their chronic decline in the cities: Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool remain ungraced by a single Tory backside on the council chambers’ chairs.
In the mayoral elections in Liverpool, the Conservatives scored a desultory seventh place, behind even the old Liberal Party candidate; if Gladstone were still with us, he might be pleased that his old party can still land a punch on his old enemies.
Labour has also benefited from Lib Dem losses. During the last Labour government, with civic Tory organisation still withering, it was the Lib Dems who established themselves as the oppositional force in Northern local government, slowly but surely seizing old Labour fiefdoms like Newcastle, Liverpool and Sheffield.
This process has been well and truly arrested. In fact, the farther up the M1, the worse it gets for the Liberal Democrats; compared to 2008, the swing against the Lib Dems is six per cent in the South, nine per cent in the Midlands and 12 per cent in the North.
Northern voters have clearly not tired of punishing the junior coalition partner for their marriage with the Conservatives.
In Liverpool, the Lib Dems lost nine seats, all picked up by Labour. Likewise in Manchester, the Lib Dems haemorrhaged 12 seats, all to Labour benefit. In Newcastle, Lib Dems lost six, Labour gained six. The pattern is well established and bodes ill for the Lib Dems’ parliamentary prospects. The line that they do better in seats with MPs is rendered rather moot in the North by the Burnley example, where the Lib Dems hold the Westminster seat.
For many progressives, Labour resurgence in its heartlands is welcome. Too much ground was lost in the dog days of the New Labour governments locally and the party’s moribund local base was one of the many factors responsible for its ejection from central government in 2010.
Nonetheless, there are dangers for the North in such political monogamy. For a start, one party (or near one party) rule lends itself neither to healthy nor efficacious government, irrespective of who is in charge. The threat of losing power to another side did help keep Labour on its toes. To elect is to choose and democracy cannot function without pluralism and healthy party competition.
There is a more systemic threat too. For a long time, the concerns of the Northern regions have been ignored by the two major parties. For Labour, the North could be guaranteed to return bulwarks of Labour MPs to Westminster, come what may; for the Conservatives, too, the urban North is seen, increasingly like Scotland, as something of a lost cause. These results will reconfirm both schools of thought in both parties.
This may reduce the political will to ‘rebalance’ the economy yet further. If no party perceives there to be an electoral premium in courting Northerners, then the electoral debate seems likely to remain stuck in the rigid ideological confines of what those in the ever elusive ‘Middle England’ want.
Northerners also spurned the government over its proposals to create a swath of elected mayors for our great cities. Save for Liverpool, Northern cities will be sticking with the status quo. Had the government put a different offer on the table, involving city-regional, metro mayors with real power and value, we might have got a different result.
Given that like AV and regional assemblies, city mayors have gone to join that great ideas scrapheap in the sky, a new devolved settlement for the North seems more unlikely than ever, again leaving the Northern voice isolated on a national stage.
Both parties should remember the North used to be much more politically promiscuous. Forty five per cent of Northern constituencies returned Conservative MPs in 1955 and 1959; in 1983 Margaret Thatcher claimed 42% of Northern seats.
Modern voters are fickle, as both the by-election and council results in Bradford have shown us. The North’s concerns and needs, political and economic, must be heeded and the parties must not become complacent and remember that both sides need those crucial Northern constituencies to form a majority in 2015.
Now mayors are off the table and attention geared ever more to Scotland and London, Northern political leaders of every stripe must overcome factional interest and work together for the economic and political needs of all Northerners.