This is not an exhaustive round-up of the elections in the East of England on May 6th. We picked the most interesting – although one of those, in Huntingdonshire where the Tories lost control after 46 years, will get a separate write-up.
Hertfordshire was always going to provide interesting results, since more seats were being contested. Also, several constituencies near London are undergoing demographic change – a trend hastened by Covid and the desire to leave the city.
Throughout the campaign it was clear the Tory vote was under siege, with Liberal Democrats looking particularly strong. Hertfordshire has been a Tory stronghold since 1976, but the party lost eight seats and, with them, control of the council. In St Albans LibDems had previously held a majority of just one seat. They won 20 more.
In North Herts Labour and the LibDems increased their joint control. During the campaign one Labour canvasser excitedly reported the party was moving into Tory Baldock, itself an illustration of the response on the doorstep. They subsequently went on to win it.
Expect big things from the LibDems at a general election
Speculation on what this means for a general election is complicated by local government boundaries too often not matching those of parliamentary constituencies. In a general election, Labour’s target seats are Stevenage and Watford. For the LibDems it’s predominantly Hitchin and Harpenden, though proposed boundary changes complicate the picture further.
One impression stands out strongly here from all the canvassing returns, analyses and political gossip. The Tory vote has become soft, with the kind of voter who has held Herts for the Tories in recent years seemingly turning against them. It would be reasonable to expect big things from the LibDems here at the general election, with possible surprises.
By Peter Thurlow
This year’s elections were never likely to make many headlines, and so it proved. Norwich is in the unusual position of having a Labour city council, with the Greens as the official opposition and the Tories holding no seats at all.
So the main interest was always going to be in the prospects for a general election and how the Green Party and their voters would react to the idea of a progressive alliance. As the smaller party they would be the ones expected to give way, but in Norwich relations between the two parties are said to be strained. Norwich North is a Tory marginal and a high profile target for Labour.
Voters are canny enough to vote tactically, alliance or no alliance
All gossip was of a likely outright refusal to play the game, but that was never substantiated since the Greens seemed peculiarly reluctant to talk. In the event, the Greens took one seat from Labour, which will please them. But elections across the region made clear that the voters have become canny enough to decide for themselves where they will put their cross, and the formality of a progressive alliance may not be necessary.
By Peter Thurlow
Before the election, most commentators were inclined to expect further steady inroads by the Tories into Labour’s majority. But last year’s successes always seemed unlikely to be repeated. The political landscape has changed dramatically since then.
Labour had a brutal time on the doorstep last year, and went into this election defensively, hoping to hold what they had, even when canvassing returns began to look optimistic. The Tories declared themselves bullish, and proclaimed that the national political picture of Partygate and the cost of living crisis was never mentioned on the doorstep. People wanted to talk about buses.
Canvassing patterns showed how the election was going
This was also unlikely. So as the election proceeded, while Tories stuck to their scenario, Labour began to throw their resources into marginal Tory wards. It became clear that any seat that changed hands would be more likely to be from Tories to Labour. There were rumours that the brutal reception on the doorstep was reserved this time for the Tories, though it was never confirmed.
In the end Labour held all those defended, and won two additional seats, including one of a former Tory leader. After the count the responses from some Tory candidates seemed almost more appropriate for a heavier defeat, so perhaps they felt they got off lightly.
By Peter Thurlow
South Cambridgeshire District Council, which surrounds the city of Cambridge, emerged from the 5 May election with a consolidated LibDem control. The 45-strong council was controlled by the Conservatives from 2007 to 2018, and has been LibDem since then.
Before 5 May, it contained four groupings:
In its new make-up, only two parties feature:
Here as elsewhere, the big question before the election was how far voters would think local and how far national. Tory group leader Cllr Heather Williams, whose personal majority grew from 5 votes to 127 even as her party’s council seats dwindled, declined to say which of those levels had played with voters more.
Speaking in the Cambridge Independent, she said: “We have a very engaged electorate here, some people will even make a conscious decision to vote on a national basis, or make a decision to vote local. Whatever the national picture is, it always has an impact on local elections, rightly or wrongly, and today is the day where it has not gone in our favour.”
LibDem council leader Cllr Bridget Smith was quoted in the same paper as looking forward to ousting the Tory MP Anthony Browne in the next General Election.
The LibDem success comes as councillors elsewhere in the country have formed an alliance of progressive parties. That model would obviously not fit the South Cambridgeshire District Council’s present composition. Before the election, Browne’s allegation of a pact between Labour and the LibDems was denied by both of those party groups. But the idea of parties working together is not unknown here. In Cambridgeshire County Council, LibDems and Labour lead a coalition.
Paul Evans, who stood unsuccessfully for the Green Party in South Cambridgeshire’s Melbourn ward gave East Anglia Bylines this view of his party’s involvement in any possible alliance:
“At a local level, unfortunately there aren’t enough Green Councillors to form alliances, as in Oxfordshire, and certainly, the three City Councillors would see themselves very much as providing an effective opposition to the Labour administration albeit we do and have supported many of their initiatives. In principle though, we are happy to establish alliances especially around those issues that we have in common.”
By Aidan Baker
The Conservatives were in control since 2021, relying on an alliance with three Independents from Highwoods ward. However, one Independent seat has now gone to Labour. Overall the Tories lost four seats, including their leader’s. This gives Liberal Democrats and Labour together 27 seats: a majority of eight over the Conservatives. So the Tories’ brief one-year joint administration is already over, and it’s back to what it was for 13 years before 2021: a LibDem-led alliance. Labour, LibDems and Greens have now agreed to form a joint coalition.
With the Conservatives holding under half the seats, Southend has been ruled by coalition of Labour, LibDems and Independents. The coalition was popular with many, including ‘Bootstrap Cook’ Jack Monroe, a well-known local. Last week, Labour gained two seats and the LibDems one, making the non-Tory alliance look set to continue under Labour’s leader Ian Gilbert. However, days later, Southend woke up to the news that Gilbert had been replaced by Labour councillor Stephen George, which led to concerns about a move to the left. Martin Terry, an Independent member of the coalition, said that if there was a dramatic change in policy direction, they ‘would be out of the door’.
In South Essex, Castle Point Conservatives lost six seats to the People’s Independent Party, who can now form a majority with Canvey Island Independents. This ended 20 years of Conservative control, with the leader and deputy leader losing their seats. Many blamed disillusionment with Westminster.
In Brentwood, the Conservatives retained control despite losing two seats to the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative leader said that there were complaints about Partygate on the doorstep. “People were upset and I get it…What Boris Johnson does in Downing Street is totally out of my control.” Local LibDems feel their success is more due to their long-term engagement with communities. The successful LibDems were active locally, and say they received positive reactions on the doorstep.
The Conservatives still hold a small majority despite losing six seats to the LibDems and Residents’ Association.
What does this tell us for future elections?
Although Essex still appears generally Conservative controlled, this hides a rich mix which now includes more LibDems and Independents. There are towns where groupings of Liberal Democrats, Labour, Independents or Greens do, or could with just a few more seat-gains, outnumber Conservatives to form an administration. Whether it happens will be influenced partly by changing demographics, as many Essex communities are becoming more diverse due to Londoner influxes.
By Jenny Rhodes
Peterborough has switched back and forth between Labour and Conservative several times over the last decade between various elections and a byelections. The Unitary Authority includes both the city and the safe Tory seat of North West Cambridgeshire. The council has been under no overall control for the last eight years, but the Tories have been in a coalition with four Independents to form an administration. Stephen McNair summed up the challenges and potential ahead of the election.
Labour had high hopes of winning several seats. Of the nineteen in play, seven were held by the Tories. On the night, Labour only managed to pick up one, but also lost one to the Tories. Overall, Labour gained just one seat.
Rumours are that the four Independents may withdraw their support from the Tories after the closure of a pool and a leisure centre went ahead over their objections. They could tip the balance if they joined Labour, LibDems and Greens to form a ‘rainbow coalition’.
By Anna Damski
Overall, the elections reflected the national picture with the Tories losing far more seats than they gained, with Labour gaining only a few. The biggest winners were the LibDems, Greens and Independents, with the latter group becoming ‘kingmakers’ in a number of council administrations.