Bloodbath in the Tory Shires

What happened?

Today has witnessed a political earthquake across the English shire districts not seen since the Conservative wipe out in May 1991 at the height of the poll tax. They are on course to lose over 1,000 councillors and over 40 councils.

The galaxy of crown jewel Conservative councils that have fallen is likely to be the biggest set of scalps in almost 30 years.  The final tally won’t be quite as bad but major change in Conservative local government fortunes on a scale not seen since the 1990s has taken place.

The loss of power is either to the Liberal Democrats, rag-tag rainbow coalitions of two, three or in some cases four different groups, or failing that, No Overall Control. It will take some weeks to find out which councils assemble rainbow coalitions and which ones see minority administrations.

The Liberal Democrat vote, although stronger than at any time since 2010, has also not recovered across the country.  That is why at less than 20% they have been out-polled as the party of protest by Independents who have gained around 25% of the vote, not far behind the two main parties coming in under 30%. In a sign that both major parties have suffered, Labour also lost just over 100 councillors and 4 councils on a net basis.

Did any party win these elections? At best the Liberal Democrats staged a convincing recovery in the number of councillors gained – over 500 new seats won, but they were almost matched by over 460 newly elected Independents.

However, the on-going difficulty for the Liberal Democrats is demonstrated by their struggle to find candidates to stand in many shire district seats and so handing these to Conservatives by default long before polling day.  It could have been even worse for the Conservatives.

Why did this happen?

What seems to have happened is that the Conservatives lost support from both Leavers who are fed up that “we haven’t left” but also from Remainers who still don’t want to leave the EU.

Affluent areas in the home counties have voted for Liberal Democrats or Independents to protest over Brexit, while others have voted Independent in protest at not having left the EU yet.  A lose-lose scenario for the Tories.  Also driving an element of the loss of Tory votes to the Independents is local voting against unpopular local plans, with large scale green belt housing allocations unsettling usually safe Conservative seats.

The complexity of the picture is supported by the failure of the Leave supporting parties to capitalise on this discontent.  That will be very different in the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament where the Conservatives could be pushed into fourth place.

What does this mean?

If you thought navigating development and planning was difficult enough, it’s about to get a whole lot harder in councils where there are a multitude of new councillors, independents with various agendas and a lack of single party control. Expect new planning committees, new planning committee chairs and new council leaderships to be on a steep and unpredictable learning curve.