Tory wipe out? Conservative-supporting commentators were having none of it. ‘Keir Starmer’s dream of a majority Labour government has crumbled’ thundered the Telegraph. But for many voters this prediction was misplaced. In the actual round of local elections last week it was the Tory vote that crumbled.
In their first big electoral test since 2019, the Conservatives were found wanting, with cracks opening up all over the previously loyal Tory heartlands. More than 1,000 of their councillors lost their seats, far more than Tory HQ had expected. Labour is now the largest party in local government, with both the Lib Dems and Greens making gains.
Recriminations, even infighting, are already under way within the Conservative party, reports BBC News. “Disappointing,” admitted prime minister Rishi Sunak. But this is a government in denial. The Tories suffered a similar rout on this scale in 2019, but were saved later that year at the general election by Boris Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’. This is more like the Tory local council meltdown in 1995. By 1997 they were out, as Labour stormed to victory.
Whether or not Starmer replicates Blair’s success or has to rely on an alliance with other parties, doesn’t matter to the many thousands who expressed their anger last Thursday. They just want the Tories gone.
Thirteen years of austerity, the dismantling of public services, the cronyism, corruption, blatantly looking after the interests of the mega rich while ignoring struggling nurses and teachers… voters have had enough of it. The need to show proof of identity at polling stations did have an impact on voters, but not enough to stem the anti-Tory tide.
Lewes – success for the ‘Cooperative Alliance’
Sussex mirrored the national picture. The most spectacular result – in a night of major gains by progressive parties – came in Lewes, where the Conservatives were wiped out: all 18 gone … not a single councillor remaining.
The Greens have emerged as the largest party with 17 seats, with the Lib Dems on 15 and Labour nine. There is every indication that they will continue their Red-Green-Orange ‘Cooperative Alliance’. Lewes MP Maria Caulfield (2019 majority 2,457) is now under notice. And it would be a major ministerial scalp if the Lib Dems take this seat. Caulfield has proved divisive and controversial in her role as minister for women’s health.
Labour in Worthing took one more seat from the Conservatives, building on their major advance last year. They now have 24 to the Conservatives’ 11 on the 37-seat council. The Greens took their first seat and the Lib Dems remain on one. The leader of Worthing’s Labour group, Beccy Cooper, last year predicted the party is now poised to take East Worthing and Shoreham from Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who in 2019 had a majority of 7,474.
Impact of government funding cuts
Brighton and Hove provided the biggest upset of the night when electors turned their backs on the Greens to put Labour back in power. Labour now has 38 councillors. The Greens have been left with seven, and the Conservatives six. The Brighton and Hove Independents, newly formed in response to their claim of “12 years of mismanagement by the Greens and Labour” managed to win only 3 seats, 2 in Rottingdean.
New Labour councillor, Jilly Stevens, who won against council leader Phelim Mac Cafferty, told Sussex Bylines there had definitely been an anti-Green vote. It didn’t help, she said, that Mac Cafferty had flown to the COP 26 conference in Glasgow. Labour had articulated the change people want, she said. “People want change at all levels of government. The appalling lack of funds for local authorities from central government ties our hands in many ways, but with a majority council we can now get things done.”
It could be argued, from a Greens’ perspective, that the straitened circumstances councils have been forced to endure has impacted on sitting councils. Brighton, in a way, mirrored what happened in Hastings last year, when it was the Greens who were the insurgents and Labour lost overall control (though remaining the biggest party).
This time the town’s party activists took the fight to the Tories in Rye, led by Labour’s prospective MP for Hastings & Rye, Helena Dollimore. Vigorous campaigning saw Labour take both council seats in Rye & Winchelsea by sizeable margins.
Dollimore told Sussex Bylines: “The historic results in Rye & Winchelsea, and across the country, show that people think it’s time for a change. These results show that we are on course for a majority Labour government: one that cuts the cost of living, cuts waiting times and cuts crime.”
Her opponent in Hastings & Rye, Conservative MP Sally Ann Hart (2019 majority 4,043), will be hoping Rishi Sunak can pull something out of the bag before she has to face the electorate again next year.
In addition to Rye, Labour also kept its two seats in Bexhill. The resulting make-up of Rother District Council leaves the Conservatives with just 10 seats. It strengthens the current progressive alliance of Labour (8), the Lib Dems (7) and Greens (3). There is also now a strong independent presence, with the Rother Association of Independent Councillors emerging with seven seats.
The outcome suggests that Huw Merriman, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, is far from safe, despite a majority in 2019 of 26,059. It may come as some relief to lose his seat because, as Minister for Transport, he has precious little to feel pleased about.
Elections in Eastbourne confirmed Lib Dem control. They now have 19 seats to the Conservatives 8, after taking over the seats lost by three Independent councillors. The town’s Conservative MP, Caroline Ansell, has a wafer-thin majority of 4,331 and is vulnerable to tactical voters backing a Lib Dem challenger next year.
Lib Dems topple true blue strongholds
There were shocks for the Tories, too, in the traditionally truer, bluer parts of Sussex.
The Conservatives lost control of Wealden District Council for the first time in 25 years – down 19 seats to a rump of nine councillors. The Lib Dems are now the biggest party with 13 seats, but could form a potential progressive bloc with the Greens (11) and Labour (2). There are also 10 independent councillors. Wealden’s Tory MP Nusrat Ghani may be feeling less safe, despite holding her seat in 2019 with a 26,655 majority.
The Lib Dems took control of Chichester for the first time, after gaining 14 seats. The party now holds 25 of the council’s 36 seats. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, to be reduced to just five. Gillian Keegan won Chichester for the Tories in 2019 with a 21,490 majority.
The Lib Dems made inroads in Mid Sussex – turfing the Tories out of power and becoming the largest party with 20 seats. The Conservatives’ once commanding position of 33 seats was reduced to 18. The Greens have four seats and Labour one. The Tory MP for Mid Sussex, Mims Davies, had an 18,197 majority in 2019.
Horsham District Council has gone Lib Dem. A huge swing now has the party on 28 seats to the Conservatives 11, with the Greens capturing eight seats. The ousted Tory leader, who lost her seat to the Lib Dems, blamed her loss on voters’ being disaffected with central government. That disaffection may impact on the future of Horsham MP Jeremy Quin, whose 2019 majority was 21,127.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey described what he saw as the mood among previously true blue supporters: “There is a feeling from very traditional Conservatives that this lot don’t have any integrity. While Sunak isn’t viewed in the same way as Johnson, I don’t think he has changed the Tory brand.
“Some of that has really got into the body politic, and I think a lot of Tory voters have just said: ‘Right, I’ve had enough of this.’”
In 1997, there was the famous ‘Portillo moment’ when Michael Portillo lost his seat in Enfield Southgate to Labour’s Stephen Twigg. Portillo was a leading light in the Conservative party, his re-election seen as inevitable. He was sitting on a majority of 15,563.
In 2024, anything is possible.