Historically, the Eastern region has been conservative. But only the South East saw a larger regional swing against the Conservative party. However, the result was not simple. Of the 183 seats the Conservatives lost, 69 went to Labour, 57 to the Greens, and 56 to the LibDems. In some places the change was dramatic: in East Hertfordshire the Conservatives lost 27 seats to the other three parties, and the Greens became the largest party. The Greens took control of their first council and became the largest party in two others. But in Fenland and Basildon the Conservatives gained seats, while in Stevenage and Watford nothing changed at all.
The map has become much more complicated.
One distinctive story in the East has been the rise of the Green party. In Mid-Suffolk they won control of their first council ever, with all but four of their candidates elected. They are also now the largest party in East Suffolk and East Hertfordshire, and they remain the formal opposition in Norwich. In other places their gains have made them potential coalition partners, but in 25 of the 47 councils there are still no Green representatives.
It remains to be seen how they will play their hand in the post-election negotiations. Like the other parties, they are a “broad church”. Their concerns for the environment and resisting development put them close to some traditional conservatives, but some of their more radical policies place them to the left of traditional Labour.
The second big story in the East is the rise of Independents. Some of these are solitary people with a particular cause and a local following. Some are disaffected former members of the main parties.
However, in some places they are effectively a local party. In North West Essex, the Uttlesford Residents, whose platform is “to keep Uttlesford free of Westminster politics” actually control the council with 24 of the 39 councillors. Independents are the largest group in Central Bedfordshire, and they dominate South East Essex, with the largest numbers in Rochford, Maldon, and Castle Point.
Some of these independents may enable a Conservative minority to retain control. How far these groups of independents act as single parties, and whether they retain cohesion remains to be seen.
No overall control
The overall swing took control away from the Conservatives in many councils, but in many cases not to a single party. The number of Districts with no single party in control rose from 10 to 19. In these “no overall control” districts, the largest parties are: Conservative 9, Green 3, Independent 3, Labour 1, LibDem 1, and 2 tied.
In some places “no overall control” may mean little change, because newly elected independents may choose to support the previous incumbent. In others there will be much more complex negotiation. As the individual wards were declared and the overall picture began to emerge, activists at the counts were beginning to discuss who might lead a coalition, and strategies for negotiating the allocation of cabinet portfolios.
East Suffolk is a dramatic case of change. Before the election the Conservatives held 39 of the 55 seats. The Greens are now the largest party, with 16 seats, followed by 15 Conservatives, 12 Labour and 11 LibDems. In this District there is a formal Green, Liberal, Independent alliance, but they now have an absolute majority of only one seat.
Although the mood among activists at the counts was generally convivial, there remain serious suspicions. Some see the Liberal Democrats as broadly on the centre left, and natural partners with Labour, but others still remember the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Coalition government of 2010. In Norfolk, the memory of the Greens’ withdrawing from the governing rainbow coalition, giving control of the county council to the Conservatives, remains strong.
Exit stage right?
The last decade saw the rise of parties to the right of the Conservatives. UKIP used to be strong in some parts of the region, especially around the coast, and its successor, the Reform party, stood candidates in the region. But none won here, and nationally Reform won only 6 seats, with a vote share down from 27% in 2019 to 6% today.
However, it is probable that, among the Independents there are some survivors of Farage’s followers. One example is the Thomas Paine Independents, who stood 8 candidates for the Breckland District in Thetford. None of them were elected, though they took one seat on the Town Council.
There has recently been concern about the rise of far-right politics in Ipswich. But the election results suggest that support is waning.
Implications for Westminster
We are still a year away from a general election, and local election results do not translate simply into national politics. But it seems clear that disaffection with the Conservative government was a powerful factor in their political collapse this week.
National experts suggest that these results, while disastrous for the Conservatives, do not signal a clear working majority for Labour in the next general election. Under our first past the post electoral system, the way the population divides favours the Conservatives (because Labour voters are concentrated in small areas, while Conservatives are more evenly spread). And next year’s boundary changes also favour Conservatives.
The Green surge in Suffolk clearly poses a threat to three Conservative MPs – Peter Aldous, Thérèse Coffey and Dan Poulter, but all currently sit on majorities of over 18,000. Boundary changes there may make a difference. The Greens’ national co-chair, Adrian Ramsay, who is standing in the new Waveney Valley constituency, will certainly be encouraged by this result.
One interesting question is how far the swing against the Conservatives benefits Labour or LibDems, especially in the inner Home Counties. Constituency-level polling has suggested that Labour might take Watford and Chelmsford. But the LibDem grip on south Hertfordshire remains solid. They retain control of four councils – St Albans, Watford, Dacorum and Three Rivers – and there was no sign of a Labour revival. In Chelmsford they increased their existing majority (and there are no Labour Councillors there) and they broke the Conservative control of Brentwood.
This week’s results certainly show that there is strong opposition to the Conservatives, but it is very divided. It may be that, when the time comes, the “blue wall” across the Home Counties will vote LibDem. So the final result of next year’s general election may depend on tactical voting. Labour have good reason to be pleased with this week’s results, but they could still find themselves ruling as a minority government.
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