DevoComment: all elections are local

Old habits die hard in the Westminster village where the media and commentators see local and devolved elections as a verdict on the party leaders and an indication of the next General Election. Devo watchers, like the discerning readers of Devo Intelligence, will have seen the election results through much more informed eyes. These results tell us more about the state of politics in Scotland, Wales and the English cities and regions, than they do about Jeremy Corbyn or David Cameron. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all elections are now local.

The SNP’s re-election for a third term in power in Holyrood was never in doubt. The surprise is that Labour have now fallen behind the Conservatives in Scotland. The Tory revival has been a long road back from the collapse in support they experienced in the Thatcher years.  Now that Labour is in a similar hole in Scotland they could look to the Tory example, recognising that it takes a great deal of time to detoxify a political brand. The Liberal Democrats have begun to do just that, showing some signs of life last night as they took back seats in Scotland and Wales.

What the Liberal Democrats know through experience, and Labour must now learn, is that a political rebuilding job starts at the local level. The Tories charismatic leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, and her new team gained ground not because of David Cameron but despite him. They have managed to shape their own new brand of Conservative politics in Scotland. This is part of the maturing of devolution, where elections are no longer all about Westminster, and parties can have a more distinctive local identify in the way that they do in other countries, like Germany or the USA.

In the Mayoral contests, the need for candidates themselves to appeal beyond their party support has long been clear, as famously demonstrated by Boris Johnson’s past victories in Labour leaning London. Zac Goldsmith appears not to have been able to pull of the same trick and although we won’t know until around midnight Friday all the smart money is on Sadiq Khan being elected to run the capital. The result of the Mayoral contest in Bristol won’t be known until Saturday but is already looking interesting from the dramatic rise in turnout at 45%, up from 28% last time around. Four years on, Labour’s Marvin Rees is hoping to reverse his narrow defeat to independent George Ferguson. Labour will take great encouragement if they can pull off a win here, but there is a pattern of independent candidates doing much better in Mayoral contests than they traditionally would in other elections.

In North Tyneside, a local referendum on whether to stick with the Mayoral model has resulted in a Yes vote.  In Liverpool, Joe Anderson won re-election as Mayor comfortably. In other areas, shaping up for Mayoral contests next year, the local election results will give an indication of political landscape. In Greater Manchester, marginal Bury Council stayed under Labour control, while in Stockport, the Liberal Democrat Leader of the Council, Sue Derbyshire, lost her seat as Labour became the largest party. Rumours were swirling last night that Andy Burnham MP is considering a run for Greater Manchester Mayor. This is a further sign that devolved politics is becoming more attractive to some than Westminster. That is certainly the judgement that former Ogmore MP Huw Irranca Davis has made in Wales, where yesterday he swapped a Westminster seat for one in the Assembly.  It is worth keeping an eye on Huw as some say he has his sights set on the First Minister’s job.

Across England the local council elections were fairly steady, with few councils changing control. Labour held on in Southampton, Nuneaton and Bedworth and Norwich. The Tories lost control in Worcester and Rugby but gained Peterborough from no overall control.

The results will keep rolling in over the next day or so but the pattern has already emerged and it is uneven and all the better for it.  It can only be a good thing for democracy when voters consider the local issues and local candidates when they cross the ballot paper. These elections were not a referendum on Westminster politics but instead a rich tapestry of local contests, each with their own unique story.

Andy Sawford by:
Andy Sawford