Unsplash/ Elliot Stallion

What happened at the 2021 local elections?

On 6 May, voters went to the polls for the first set of local elections since 2019. Council results normally result in a good kicking for the party in power, but that was far from the case this year. Coupled with consolidations of power in the governments of the devolved administrations, this set of elections was really interesting and may indicate what we can expect in the near political future.

Local results

Most results came in dribs and drabs throughout the Friday following the Thursday elections, but my home ward of Nuneaton and Bedworth rushed to be early and saw in the day with a massive upheaval. Labour controlled the council for 46 out of 48 years, but this year saw a very different result – a Conservative landslide. The Tories turned traditional red areas like Camp Hill and Kingswood blue, and they now hold all of the seats in Bedworth. And they did it in style, increasing their seat count to 24 (against Labour’s seven) and de-throning, among others, the former council leader Julie Jackson and Mayor June Tandy.

Tories swept to victory, making gains in councils across the country

I mention this area in part because it’s my home, but also because Nuneaton and Bedworth is often considered a bellwether result in elections – what happens there tends to be extrapolated out to national results. A crushing result for Labour here was not a good sign for the party nationally, and so it proved – Tories swept to victory, making gains in councils across the country, turfing out Labour councillors in traditional Labour areas.

Warwickshire County Council, which includes Nuneaton and Bedworth but also Leamington, was a Conservative hold – and they massively increased their number of councillors. The Tories finished the election with 42 of the 57 seats, six more than they won in 2017. 

Labour had a bad day – their seat share fell from ten to six, and both their leader and deputy leader, Helen Adkins (Leamington Willes) and Dave Parsons (Polesworth) respectively, were among the casualties. The Lib Dems lost three seats to finish on five, while the Green Party gained two, wrapping up on three, despite losing their deputy leader Keith Kondakor.

Going against the national trend, Coventry County Council saw a strong showing for the Labour Party. One-third of the seats were up for re-election, and it was seen as really unlikely that there would be a Conservative upset. Labour retained overall control and a majority, avoiding the large losses seen throughout the country, but they still dropped one seat to hold a total of 39. 

Sherbourne was won by Ryan Simpson, a 21-year-old Warwick student

Importantly for Labour, they managed to win the hotly-contested seat of Earlsdon, with just over 500 more votes than the Conservative candidate. The Conservatives won in Sherbourne, Bablake, and Cheylesmore – increasing their number of seats on the council by two to 15. Sherbourne was won by Ryan Simpson, a 21-year-old Warwick student who is now the youngest Coventry councillor.

After council results were announced, all eyes were on the mayoral election. Incumbent Andy Street, representing the Conservatives, was long seen as the favourite – but this was seen as an important test. Labour wanted to win the West Midlands, and they sent in the former cabinet minister and Birmingham MP Liam Byrne as their candidate. 

In the end, however, it was much as anticipated. Andy Street was a fraction of a percent from passing the 50% threshold after first-round votes. He cemented his win after it went to second preferences, re-elected with 54% of the final total vote. Retaining the West Midlands police and crime commissioner post will be a small comfort for Labour, but it was a win in an area that provided precious few for the party.

National results

Friday began with a bad result for the Labour Party, as Jill Mortimer was elected the Conservative MP for the day’s only bi-election in Hartlepool. This result was not unexpected, but the scale of the defeat was – Mortimer won 51.9% of the vote in an area that has never elected a Tory MP, and with a swing of 16% to the party. 

The result immediately piled pressure on Sir Keir Starmer, who was criticised for fielding a staunch Remain candidate in an area that largely backed Leave. He hoped a win or a strong showing would be the first step in rebuilding the so-called Red Wall, but it instead emphasised the disconnect between the traditional Labour heartlands and the party.

[These results send a message to Westmister] telling you to deliver more devolution

– Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester

Labour did see some, but not many, bright spots as the Tories gobbled up council seats across the country (including long-red areas like Durham and Sunderland). The party did well in mayoralties, winning 11 of the 13 mayoral contests, such as Liverpool and the West of England. Andy Burnham was re-elected as mayor of Greater Manchester with an increased share of 67.3% of the vote, a victory he said sent a message to Westminster “telling you to deliver more devolution”.

On Saturday night, we also got the expected result that Sadiq Khan had won a second term as mayor of London, winning 55.2% of the vote after an expectedly close contest with Conservative rival Shaun Bailey.

Mark Drakeford will remain the first minister of Wales after a strong showing by the Labour Party there, winning 30 of the 60 Senedd seats. They fell one short of an overall majority, but this feat has never been achieved in the history of the Welsh parliament. The Conservatives had their best Senedd campaign, winning 16 seats, while Plaid Cymru came in third with 13 seats.

No one was expecting Nicola Sturgeon to lose in Scotland – the big question was whether the SNP would gain a majority, or continue ruling as a minority government. In the end, she came agonisingly close, winning 64 of the 129 Scottish parliamentary seats available – just one under a majority. But an informal coalition with the Green Party (who won eight seats) means there is a majority for independence in Holyrood.

Sturgeon increased the party’s vote share and the sweep of constituencies, and was quick to assert that this meant there was a mandate for a second independence referendum once the pandemic has passed. This argument, however, faces multiple complications – the loss of the other independence party (Alex Salmond’s Alba Party), as well as the open secret that the Conservatives and Labour were tactically voting to prevent the SNP from picking up seats. The votes are split roughly 50-50 between pro-independence and pro-union voices now –  a division that won’t vanish overnight.

The SNP have shown themselves once again to be a dominant force in Scotland, and it’s not sustainable for Johnson to keep ignoring them

Throughout the regions, there were two main stories. One was the collapse of Labour, and the second was the strength of incumbency. Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that many voters recognised the work done by their local officials and rewarded them for it. Although Labour suffered, there were very few major results that actually changed hands – largely, the incumbent consolidated their positions, and made much of the support. 

For Labour, however, it’s going to be a period of soul-searching and recrimination. Starmer has already sacked his deputy leader Angela Rayner as the party chair and reshuffled his shadow cabinet.

And, of course, it’s Scotland that is the looming issue for Boris Johnson. Nicola Sturgeon is hyping up ‘indyref2’, and the Prime Minister has said a flat ‘no’. The issue will come to a head, with talk of court cases to force the vote already in the news. 

The SNP have shown themselves once again to be a dominant force in Scotland, and it’s not sustainable for Johnson to keep ignoring them – something will have to be done, and that decision could make or break the UK.

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