Saturday, 6 May 2017

My analysis of 2017 local elections in the UK, part 1: County council elections

'[UKIP}, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!'
-Anne Robinson back when she hosted the Weakest Link.

NB: The 'unitarised' county councils (i.e. Cornwall, Durham, Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Shropshire, and Wiltshire) are covered here as well.

Readers, the results of the 2017 county council (and unitarised county council) elections in Britain, just five weeks before the snap election, are finally here.

The biggest story of the night is how UKIP have been wiped off the map, losing every single seat even in their best counties of Essex, Kent, and Lincolnshire. In fact, UKIP lost every single one of their 147 county council seats, gaining only Padiham & Burnley West in return. The majority of UKIP's losses, and ex-UKIP votes, benefitted the Conservatives mainly at Labour's expense, but not all of them; however, it benefitted them where it mattered, such as in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire.

UKIP were wiped off the map in county council election terms for one main reason: with Britain on course to leave the EU, their raison d'etre has disappeared, because if Britain had never entered the EU, UKIP would never have existed in the first place. Also, without the charismatic Nigel Farage as their leader, combined with the infighting that has spread to UKIP nationally as well as in their local council groups, they have lost many of their former supporters and have effectively become a busted flush. UKIP's organisation had in fact been crumbling before the elections started, to the point where they fielded fewer candidates overall than the Green Party.

Meanwhile, how did the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens do?

Conservative: There is no denying the fact that UKIP's heavy loss was the Conservatives' heavy gain, since the situation was the other way round in 2013 when UKIP deprived the Conservatives of overall control of even its strongest, safest counties, such as Lincolnshire and Norfolk, which this year it has retaken control of. UKIP's collapse also helped the Conservatives win many county council seats from Labour, although not as many as in 2009.

Much of UKIP's vote was a protest vote rather than a genuine paleoconservative anti-European vote, although Theresa May's hard Brexit stance helped the Conservatives win most of it back. Many protest voters still went over to the Liberal Democrats (ironic given how pro-Remain the Lib Dems were and are) and the Green Party, who are likely to become a good recipient of protest voters in future just as in 1989.

The Conservatives did not do as well this year as they did in 2009, despite Labour polling just as badly then as now, and they even had some losses along the way. In my home county of Hertfordshire, they lost Haldens and only narrowly won the new division of Hatfield East, failing to win back either Hatfield South or Welwyn Garden City South. They captured Derbyshire from Labour and the county councils of Lincolnshire, Warwickshire, Lancashire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Gloucestershire from no overall control, but not Oxfordshire where in many divisions their vote actually fell in spite of UKIP never having had any real presence in Oxfordshire, mainly due to the unpopular 'One Oxfordshire' proposal, nor Nottinghamshire despite benefitting well from UKIP's collapse also and gaining several Labour seats as a result.

Labour: Labour did not make as many losses as expected-and their vote share, contrary to opinion polls for this snap general election, remained stable in most counties, and sometimes slightly increased compared to 2013. However, Labour made far more losses than gains, and many of these were in highly competitive areas like northern Warwickshire (North Warwickshire and Nuneaton), Derbyshire, Hastings, Stevenage, and Crawley. They also failed to benefit much from UKIP's collapse, particularly in Essex working-class bastions like Basildon and Harlow. Critically, not a single Labour gain from Conservative was recorded in these county council elections (they came closest to it in Worthing, however), worsening Labour's woes for the upcoming general election; Labour did however make a few gains from UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, and several from the Green Party. However, it must be noted that very few voters go directly from Labour to Conservative or vice versa, although personal votes or lack thereof can influence this in key marginal seats.

Labour's loss of Derbyshire to the Conservatives and of Nottinghamshire to No Overall Control (based on their initial 2013 results) as well as largest party status in Lancashire and Northumberland, are undoubtedly the biggest blows to it this year, although in Nottinghamshire the rise of Independent groups, specifically the Ashfield Independents and Mansfield Independent Forum, dealt a bigger blow to them than the Conservatives, and they did not lose any divisions contained in the Gedling constituency (a key target for the upcoming general election). Their only real consolation is that they have in many places more seats than they had in 2009, considered Labour's true nadir in county council election terms in the UK.

Liberal Democrats: The so-called Brexit 'bounce-back' was in fact confined to a few places and the Liberal Democrats suffered overall losses in the end. In Nottinghamshire where I now live, they were almost wiped out despite making a deal with the Greens in Broxtowe, holding on to only one division, that of Bramcote & Beeston North. It was mainly in Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, and Oxfordshire that they were able to make inroads against the Conservatives, and their gains from Labour were few as well. In their south west 'heartland', however, they lost enough seats in Cornwall to make the Conservatives the largest party there instead, slipped back heavily in Somerset (particularly in Frome and Taunton), and their results do not bode well for any recapture of Wells or Yeovil either (even though former MP Tessa Munt captured the Wells division), Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, rural Dorset, and Wiltshire. However, they experienced a strong surge in East Sussex, winning most of the divisions in Lewes and Eastbourne, both of which were only won narrowly from the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, they easily held all their divisions in South Lakeland and North Norfolk, but they are not out of the woods yet by any means.

In a particularly notable hold, that of South Blyth, they deprived the Conservatives of overall control of Northumberland Council by a single vote, in that single seat. If you need proof that one vote can potentially make all the difference, this result is it.

The Liberal Democrats probably will make some gains from the Conservatives in the upcoming general election, but the number of gains from them is not likely to exceed single figures.

Green Party: The Green Party did indeed make many important gains and breakthroughs in these local elections, winning their first seat on the Isle of Wight, gaining two seats in Dorset and confirming themselves, and not Labour, as third party in Dorset, gaining their first two seats in Somerset and pushing both Lib Dem incumbents into third place in the process, one in Shropshire, an extra seat in Suffolk, and an extra one in Gloucestershire. Despite boundary changes and unfavourable circumstances, they also held onto their existing seats in Devon, Kent, Worcestershire, and Lancashire.

However, to counteract this, they sadly lost all their county council seats in Norwich and Oxford, following on from heavy city council losses in the same two cities to Labour last year, and their only seat in Cornwall, St Ives East, was captured by the Conservatives. They lost Rochford West in Essex as well due to UKIP's vote transferring easily to the Conservatives but held Witham North despite the same phenomenon occuring there as well. They also experienced many unfortunate near-misses, missing the Shropshire seats in Oswestry South and West by just 63 and 11 votes respectively, falling only 2-3% short of winning their first county council seats in East Sussex (the margins being just 62 and 107 votes in tight contests). They also failed to finish second in a single division of either Hertfordshire or Nottinghamshire (both places where I have campaigned and lived) despite the Green potential in both counties.

Independents and other parties: Most other parties fared very poorly in these elections. The Lincolnshire Independents lost all seats but the seat of Marianne Overton, to the benefit of the Conservatives in most cases, but in next-door Nottinghamshire both the Ashfield Independents and Mansfield Independent Forum had an excellent night. The Canvey Island Independents achieved the only gain from the Conservatives in the whole of Essex, but many other Residents' Associations performed poorly (e.g. in Epsom & Ewell). The 'old' Liberals lost all three of their seats, even in North Yorkshire which has one of their last bases (the other being the city of Liverpool), and with the Kidderminster Hospital issue no longer on the minds of many Worcestershire voters, only one Health Concern councillor was elected (one was also elected in Shropshire, though). TUSC fared even worse than last time, compounded by having fewer candidates (the county where they had the most candidates was Hertfordshire, of all places!). Few Women's Equality Party candidates stood, and their only notable showing was in Tunbridge Wells South. The performance of Independents varied from candidate to candidate, of course, but overall, more independent candidates were elected compared to 2013.


  1. Hi Alan, you missed out the breakthrough in North Yorkshire and our near miss in Durham (108 votes short) plus 2 good second places in Northumberland and a v close second for a Green Party member standing as an independent in Berwick North (for local reasons) short by only 4 votes... Very good analysis piece thanks! Shirley Ford

    1. Our breakthrough in North Yorkshire was actually a district council gain in Craven, not a county council gain in North Yorkshire. The specific division in Durham we just missed out on was Neville's Cross, and we got a good result in Chester-Le-Street East as well.

      Sorry about that delay, but some county councils are rather slow at releasing results.