Why Arenâ€™t the Conservatives Doing Better?
This may seem an odd question to ask at a time when the Conservative Party has enjoyed several years of steady advance in local government, and now holds almost 40% of council seats in Great Britain, for the first time since 1987. The answer, I think, is really the mirror of my article of last week â€œThe Strange Death of Labour England.â€
In previous years of local government success, the Conservatives could expect to take control of authorities like Bradford, Birmingham, Bolton, Sefton and Wirral, as well as several other urban authorities.
This is important, as there are several marginal seats located within the boundaries of these Boroughs, and local government success is usually a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for success at national level. Although the Conservatives still have significant representation on these authorities, in none of them are they close to overall control.
Even if they make sweeping gains in May, their chances of winning control of several of the big urban authorities they controlled in the late 1970s and early 1980s are slim.
In most of these authorities, the Liberal Democrats have established a big presence, and increasingly, minor parties such as the Greens and BNP are beginning to establish themselves. This makes it hard for any party to win an overall majority.
At the same time, the Conservatives are piling up huge majorities in many of the District Councils, and will increase those majorities on May 3rd. In my own borough of Hertsmere, for example, the Conservatives never held more than 24 out of 39 seats between 1973 and 2004. Yet now they hold 28, and should gain another 2 or 3 seats in May.
This pattern is typical of many areas of historic Conservative strength in the Home Counties and South of England, where Labour are vanishing, and the Conservatives coming close to achieving a clean sweep. But while it is nice to have a gigantic majority on a local council, it is also a waste of votes. After all, a majority of one is sufficient to have overall control. In general, it also leads to better government, and aids party discipline, to have an effective opposition in the council chamber.
My point is that Iâ€™m sure the Conservative Party would be only too happy to see rather more Conservative voters staying in boroughs like Enfield, Barnet, and Harrow, and rather fewer moving into boroughs like Broxbourne, and Hertsmere. The drift of the middle classes out of the big cities is a considerable problem for Conservatives.
Last night there were two by-elections.
Elmbridge DC, Claygate: Liberal Democrat 744, Conservative 645, UKIP 63, Labour 44. This was a Liberal Democrat hold, with a reduced majority. UKIP continued their run of bad results, but were at least able to beat Labour.
Nottinghamshire CC, Sutton North. Liberal Democrat 1,979, Labour 435 Conservative, 222, UKIP 70. Liberal Democrat gain from Labour. This was a truly remarkable result, with the Liberal Democrat vote rising from 14% in 2005, to 73% yesterday. This is the second very bad result Labour have suffered in this part of Nottinghamshire in recent weeks, and may point to a particularly bad result in May.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist