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politics

Local Elections: How Doomed Are the Tories?

Local Conservative councillors are going to lose out because of Theresa May's failings, and they are not happy about it.

by Gavin Haynes
30 April 2019, 11:19am

Photo: Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo

On Sunday, a YouGov poll on the European Parliament elections put The Brexit Party on 28 percent, Labour on 22 and the Tories languishing on a dismal 13. The entire two party system is slithering down the plughole, we're told – the old regime is being snuffed out en masse by the Harold Shipman of Brexit chaos.

On Thursday, England will have its first big chance to test that theory in local elections. But the picture is even more complicated than it seems. For a start, the almighty Brexit Party aren’t standing – probably a good thing, given how they’re not bothering to write a manifesto until after the Euro elections.

Yet the Tories still look set for their heaviest defeat in two decades. This week’s Sunday Times predicted that a six-point swing to Labour could yield more than 1,000 Conservative losses and 800 Labour gains, in what would be the party’s most crushing defeat in over 20 years – ever since Tony Blair’s New Labour rinsed them for 2,000 seats in 1995.

But then again, local council elections are often poor indicators of what is happening nationally. For a start, they’re local. And that means – as any councillor on the campaign trail will try to convince you – that they’re about "bin collections, not Brexit". "I liken it to a football team," says Greig Baker, Chairman of the Canterbury Conservatives Association. "You don’t stop supporting them just because you don’t like the manager."

Canterbury was one of the big flips at the 2017 general election – where its vast student population surged behind Corbyn, to bag for Labour a seat that had been in Tory hands for 99 years. In Canterbury, they know only too well how much suffering a mangled Brexit has laid at their door. Last week, Baker was one of over 60 Conservative Association chairs who signed a letter to party headquarters, demanding another vote to remove Theresa May.

It was an act of grassroots revolution unprecedented in modern times. The Tory party is not only reeling electorally, it is quaking from within: the activist base it relies upon to stuff envelopes and knock doors has always been more Brexit-y than its Parliamentary party, and they are livid. “We had a special meeting last week," Baker says, "and the overwhelming majority, over 90 percent, backed signing the letter." For local parties like Canterbury, there is now another culture war going on – where they find themselves pitched against the more metropolitan management, much like Momentum in Labour. It means that their local electoral strategy has become all about distancing themselves from the disasters upstream.

Canterbury also elected two UKIP councillors in 2015, but in a story repeated right across the country, both have now ended up sitting as independents. Around 2017, local councillors began deserting UKIP in droves, switching allegiance to become independents, or re-joining the Conservatives.

For Gerard Batten’s slightly revived crew, this is a last desperate stand for relevance before they are finally blown away by the Brexit Party in three weeks. The problem is, they’ve already been so eroded that they now lack the organisational structures to make it happen: they are contesting only 16 percent of available seats, as compared with more than 40 percent they contested back in 2015.

Even if the pro-Brexit vote does afford them a bounce, over in Milton Keynes, Conservative Councillor Peter Geary still wonders which of the major parties will bear more of the scars. “It’s going to hit us, but it’s also going to hit Labour, and I’m not sure where the balance will lie. In one of our poorest wards, East Bletchley, Labour have been out leafleting this week," he says. "Normally, they don’t even bother; they just take them for granted. But they’ve been bounced into it by UKIP."

Geary clearly also sees May as an electoral liability. “[She] has announced she will be leaving,” he deadpans. “And I think a lot of members of the party are just waiting for that to happen.”

But he doesn’t think it’s a uniquely Tory issue. Both the big parties will have to take their lumps: “Speaking to my Labour colleagues, they’re experiencing the same level of annoyance on the doorstep, which is quite high.”

With all these issues working at cross-purposes to each other, ultimately the tedium of The Bins may still clinch it. Geary reckons people may stay their hand, realising they have a chance to send an unwanted and useless MEP to Brussels in the comedy protest flavouring of their choice in three weeks time. But you still don’t want to have to produce photo ID just to get your recycling sacks, do you?

Each locality is different: Baker mentions the planned new hospital in Canterbury; Geary talks about problems with Milton Keynes’ unique system of "grid roads", and everywhere you look the two big parties are engaged in a Dutch auction of expectation management – falling over themselves to emphasise their own coming wipeout so that they can later claim moderate losses as a kind of victory.

It might be smarter to instead watch where the vote holds up, more than how it holds up. In Labour terms, Andy Burnham has spoken of the party’s drift "from Hull to Hampstead" – how the young, metropolitan, southern tone of Corbyn’s base is serving to drive a wedge between Labour and the more traditionalist, often northern, often working class vote. But Labour also needs to hang onto both branches if it is to stand any chance in a general election. Watch for results in Derby (presently a narrow Conservative hold, with a strong UKIP challenge), and Peterborough (poor, working class, virulently pro-Brexit and just a few seats shy of a coalition with the Lib Dems).

If these competing vectors all cancel each other out, the strangest reveal by the end of the night would be a big win for a zombie party. Change UK, in classic Change UK style, were too late to register for local elections, which means that the Lib Dems are the only Ultra-Remain faction in the running.

Part of the party’s rebound is sheer statistical inevitability. In 2015, at the last local elections, the Tories were peaking, while The Lib Dems, having been devoured in coalition, were at a historic, 40-year low. The Tories ate their vote then; now, the Tories will spit it back out: on the most optimistic predictions, the Lib Dems stand to gain 400 seats, giving them back what they lost in the Coalition era. They could even claim overall control of councils in St Albans and Winchester.

Whatever happens, do try to enjoy the conventional feel of these polls – soon, we will look back on them as a kind of Summer Of 1913, a stately, civilised last hurrah for our century-old two party system.

@gavhaynes