A look back at the 2023 local elections

The local elections are over and the results have confirmed, indeed exceeded, the worst fears of the Conservatives. In West Berkshire’s election, which we covered particularly closely, the Lib Dems took control of the council with a large majority. Both the leader and the Deputy Leader as well as two other members of the Executive lost their seats. As for the other parties, the Green’s performance was surprisingly disappointing, being reduced from three members to two. Labour won its first ever place on the Council, Clive Taylor taking the second berth in Tilehurst Birch Copse by just one vote.

This leaves the overall results as 29 Lib Dems, eleven Conservatives, two Greens and one Labour. The new administration therefore has more than twice as many seats as do the other parties combined. It remains to be seen if this will enable adequate scrutiny to take place. You can see all the results by ward by clicking here.

Here are a few thoughts on what happened and why…

Checking the facts

I don’t know how many election leaflets were printed in the run-up to 4 May but the recycling centres around the country will be busy over the next few weeks. Some that were binned in advance of the contest – though it’s not clear how many – were from the Norwich Conservative Association which, according to iNews, included the front-page message that no voter ID was required. The local Conservative Chair quickly passed the buck by saying that the error occurred because his local campaigners downloaded a template from the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ): not our fault, in other words.

This tells us something that we probably know already – local parties are either too over-worked, too casual or too trusting to bother to check anything that comes from higher up. It also shows that, at least in Norwich, just about the only consistent piece of election messaging from the government (that voter ID was needed) didn’t get through to the local party. One wonders what else might have slipped through the net.

Far more embarrassing was what happened in Bracknell where a candidate for the Town Council, Andrew McBride, was exposed (after the nominations closed) as a former deputy leader of Britain First and an organiser for the BNP. This sparked howls of outrage from his fellow Conservative candidates but the local party really should have been blaming itself. Didn’t anyone bother to check?

Meanwhile, here in West Berkshire, the local Conservative association was sitting on a spreadsheet provided by the website Money.co.uk (background to a report it had published in June 2022) for eight months before releasing a statement which made one claim that – as I explained in this article – couldn’t be supported by the data as a final conclusion. The real missed opportunity was that a quick glance and re-sort of the spreadsheet revealed several things, one in particular, that painted the council in a far more positive light than the clumsy and misleading “best overall” that was selected as the main takeaway from the report.

I presume that local parties can, at election time, call upon literate, numerate and web-savvy volunteers. But there’s no evidence that in these cases anyone bothered to ask if a leaflet could be fact-checked, a list of candidates be examined for skeletons or a data source be mined for hidden treasure. There’s a lot written about voter apathy and disengagement with the political process. These stories (which all happen to involve the Conservatives though I assure you that’s a co-incidence) illustrate why this might be.

Keeping it simple

All elections are in a sense dishonest in that the material paints a highly simplistic picture of what has happened, and what would happen were a different party to triumph. This is no surprise. After a close look at the election material of the three main parties in West Berkshire (you can find these and other election-related matters in this section of the website) I became convinced that the parties should be making a bit more effort to provide background information and sources for those who wanted it.

In addition, these people are, of course, elected to represent you, not to pedal some local version of their party’s line. How good might they be at this crucial task? If they’ve not served before, we only have their word for this. It at least seemed worth asking them, if only to give you a statement to bat back at them later should the need arise.

The coverage we offered during the campaign – you can see the various posts in this section – therefore concentrated on two things. The first was trying to put the major claims by the three main parties in West Berkshire into context; the second was trying to tease out the human and the apolitical aspects of the candidates through a short series of questions (and a slightly longer series in Hungerford and the Hendreds in the Vale). I’m pleased with the results and a good number of people clicked on them but I’m left with the feeling that there was one more question I could have asked or one more confident assurance I should have checked.

I was also involved in presenting four programmes on Kennet Radio in the month before the election, each looking at specific areas. Given the time constraints, Ofcom’s election requirements, comms problems (the candidates were all participating on Zoom) and advert and news breaks, it was sometimes hard to get any momentum going. Also, when planning the programmes, we could only guess what matters would be of interest to listeners. The view we took was to have more questions at the expense of in-depth coverage of a smaller number of topics. I think that we pulled this compromise off as well as we could have done: but we were aware that it was a compromise. There’s also only much information, and so much detail, that anyone can accept on a matter which they’re not expert on. To that extent, it could be argued that we accomplished little more than did the manifestos and leaflets from the parties. At election time, the lowest common denominator is king.

The blame game

Any sense of under-performance or disappointment I might have felt about my own coverage of the campaign was, however, as nothing compared to how the Conservatives would have felt about the results. Nationally, they lost over 1,000 seats and control of nearly 50 councils. In four authorities in this area – West Berkshire, Swindon, Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire – their number of seats fell from 74 to 35. If Swindon had operated an all-out system rather than only electing a third each time, the result would have been a good deal worse. In the two former cases, they also lost control of the councils.

This is all cyclical, of course. Next time round the political roulette wheel will have spun to a different position and there will be other winners and losers. This time, though, there was one loser while everyone else to a greater or lesser extent won.

There was a well-publicised national context to this, of course. It seems amazing to reflect that nine months ago Boris Johnson was still PM. Partygate, two further PMs and a disastrous “mini-budget”, all against the backdrop of the worst period of inflation for half a century, did not work in favour of the Conservatives at a local level. At party HQ, however, Sunak may be rubbing his hands at the thought that a lot of people had now shot their protest vote, so clearing the air before the general election. As well as not funding councils properly – a fact on which most local candidates across the spectrum seem to agree – local elections are also a useful lightning conductor. The proposition also works in reverse, as defeated local parties have a ready-made excuse which puts the blame on factors beyond their control.

Local issues

Clearly the national party’s problems don’t explain everything. If they did then there’d be have been no Conservative councillors or councils elected at all. They even made a couple of council gains. Why, in West Berkshire, did the Conservatives do so badly? After all, we’re not talking about an authority that has been, in my view, incompetent or systemically corrupt in the way that some have been proved to be. It has only once in the last four years that I can recall featured in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column. I’d suggest that there were two reasons.

Firstly, there was a strange mixture of fatalism and complacency in their campaign. Being in power for 16 years, sometimes with a massive majority, must do strange things to your head. Part of you thinks you’ll always be there; part of you suspects that it’s time you weren’t any more. Their campaign started later than did the Lib Dems’ and relied too much on the “incumbent’s safe pair of hands” proposition. As the hapless David Cameron discovered after the Brexit referendum in 2016, “more of the same” is often a lot less appealing than “something different.”

There were also a number of issues on which the current administration had painted itself into corners from which it could not escape. There were four main ones, all of which will be familiar to anyone who has read what I’ve written over the last four years. These are the deteriorating relations with the community-transport provider Readibus; the dispute about CIL charges for some residents; the tangled story of the closure of the Faraday Road football ground and its proposed replacement (or partial replacement) at Monks Lane; and the plan to build 2,500 (later reduced to 1,500) homes in north east Thatcham.

Even if residents didn’t relate to all these issues, many would have been increasingly aware that, like a perennially leaking roof, they were not being fixed. The first three had been inherited from the previous (also Conservative) administration (2017-18 should be marked down by local Tories as an annus horribilis when decisions on these matters were taken by the then administration which haunted its successor). On the first two matters, no progress was made of any kind; on the third, the football ground debacle, the then portfolio holder Howard Woollaston at least tried to accomplish something. The fourth of these, the plan for north east Thatcham homes, has been entirely a creation of this administration. And I’ve not even mentioned the London Road Industrial Estate…

All of these combined to create the impression of an administration that was to some extent a prisoner of its past. This was despite there being a number of things which WBC has done well in the last four years.

Many people, from various parties, praised the response to the pandemic, in which the former Leader Lynne Doherty and her Deputy Graham Bridgman were closely involved (despite this, both lost their seats). I’m no financial expert, but the way the money has been spent seems to have been prudent, if perhaps not entirely to the taste of the incoming administration: but at least we’re not Thurrock or Croydon. WBC also seems to have been adept at applying for grant funding from the regular beauty contests that the government chooses to use in preference to a solid and reliable financial settlement. In all of these cases, the officers probably deserve at least as much credit as the elected members.

If it hadn’t been for the above-mentioned idées fixes which the Conservative administration had held – which made it seem rapacious, inflexible and dogmatic and without any good or clearly argued point of principle – then its performance might have been stronger. There were also a number of well-publicised internal rifts and, to get the campaign off to a really shaky start, an unedifying leaked WhatsApp exchange.

What’s next?

The new WBC administration won’t formally take over until the first full council meeting on 25 May. In the meantime, a number of discussions with officers are taking place as the Lib Dems seek to establish what exactly it is that they have inherited. Top of its list of priorities will be addressing some specific issues which were manifesto promises. These include cancelling the Monks Lane deal, returning football to Faraday Road, re-issuing the Readibus contract without the gagging clause, resolving the wrongly-charged CIL bills, establishing opposition members as the Chair and Deputy of the Oversight and Scrutiny Committee, abolishing green bin charges for those on benefits, re-constituting the area forums and reviewing the local plan.

Some of these will take longer to accomplish than others. The one that requires the most delicate handling is the local plan, mainly because for better or for worse it has already been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. In 2019, the new administration in South Oxfordshire was elected on a platform of reviewing the district’s local plan, which had reached more or less the same stage as has WBC’s. The then Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick stepped in and, in what many saw as an overtly political decision, ordered the authority to ratify the plan as it stood under pain of being stripped of its planning powers. SODC had no option but to comply.

WBC’s Lib Dems have so far been careful to stress that it is only the home allocation in NE Thatcham which is contentious and unsound. The fear, however, is that unpicking this one thread may cause the whole fabric to start unravelling, something the new administration will want to avoid at all costs. None the less, the party’s opposition to the proposal was so strong, certainly at the town-council level, that it clearly has to do something about it now it’s taken control. How well it accomplishes this task may be the new administration’s first major test.

We’ll be keeping our eye on all these issues and will be reporting on when they’ve happened and looking at any problems or obstacles they encounter. Rest assured that, if they don’t end up happening, we’ll certainly be asking why not…

 

Brian Quinn

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2 Responses

  1. You are right about elections ‘literature’ appealing to ‘lowest common denominator’. I don’t have a solution other than to say everything we deliver through letter-boxes ought to have a link to the Party’s manifesto and candidate contact details. Regrettably ours didn’t but I intend to find out why.
    Our unsuccesful collagues in H&K Julian Swift-Hook had the initiative of printing a “H&K Lib Dem Team” business card that we delivered to everyone whose door we knocked on in the last two weeks – that must have been about 700 doors or 1200 voters. We got <<50 responses!

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