Testing times for UK politics

When UK voters went to the polls on 5 May it was the single biggest test of public opinion ahead of the 2020 election. Some 2,604 council seats...

When UK voters went to the polls on 5 May it was the single biggest test of public opinion ahead of the 2020 election.

Some 2,604 council seats for 124 councils in England were up for grabs – a third of them were in 32 of 36 metropolitan boroughs, including Labour heartlands like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Bolton and Newcastle upon Tyne.

Bristol, Salford and London were also electing mayors and elections for 41 police and crime commissioners across England and Wales took place.

In Scotland, 16- and 17-year-olds joined the 4 million voters electing 129 MSPs to Holyrood for a five-year term – comprising 73 MSPs in first-past-the-post contests and a regional list vote to elect 56 more from eight regions, under proportional representation.

Under the Welsh Assembly system, there were two votes on polling day – one to elect a constituency member and one to elect a regional member.

The election plunged the Assembly in crisis with the shock failure of First Minister Carwyn Jones to secure re-election. With 29 seats and no overall majority, Labour hoped to form a minority government – but Plaid Cymru joined forces with UKIP and the Conservatives to back its own leader Leanne Wood.

Wood’s selection as First Minister was only averted after Kirsty Williams, the sole Liberal Democrat member of the Assembly, voted with Labour to defeat her. The attempted coup has prompted fury by Labour, which with 29 seats is the largest party in the Welsh Assembly.

It looks likely that the deadlock will be broken in Carwyn Jones’s favour.

Jones can at least rest rely on the fact that the Labour Co-op Group in the Welsh Assembly is now the largest ever, increasing from 9 to 11 members. The list includes former MP Huw Irranca-Davies, who gave up his Westminster seat to become AM for Ogmore.

Labour-Co-op AMs will also be using their stronger position in the Senedd to promote their manifesto for Wales, which proposed co-op development in a number of key areas, including energy, transport, housing, credit unions, health, sport and crime prevention.

In other areas across the UK, the electoral picture is a little clearer.

In the last round of equivalent local elections in 2012 Labour picked up 800 council seats under Ed Miliband – a high watermark for his leadership. Despite dire predictions by MPs that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would haemorrhage hundreds of seats, in the event the party lost just 18 seats.

In Bristol, the last city to be declared, Labour actually won control, gaining seven seats on the council. The election of Marvin Rees as mayor was a major boost for Labour. Its overall vote share was up 1% and fears that many councils in the south-east would be lost were not realised. The only loss of council control was Dudley, a key swing seat in a general election. However, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledged in a meeting with MPs a few days later, the party’s failure to actually win seats and its drubbing in Scotland, where it came third, means there is a long way to go before it is a prospective party of government.

The Conservatives lost a total of 48 council seats and control of two councils, but gained control of Peterborough. Lib Dems gained 45 councillors in total, and won back Watford council from no overall control. UKIP gained 25 more council seats – but was not able to convert these gains into control of any council. It was far more successful in Wales, where it gained seven seats thanks to the PR system.

The good news is that despite setbacks for Labour on the night, the Co-operative Party made significant progress. It retained control of co-operative councils across England including Milton Keynes, Stevenage, Norwich, Rochdale and Newcastle, where the council leader Nick Forbes was re-elected.

In Plymouth, where Labour/Co-operative Cllr Tudor Evans was recently recognised nationally as Council Leader of the Year, the Labour/Co-operative group lost just one seat to the Conservatives, leaving the council under no overall control, with its leadership hanging in the balance until the council’s AGM in coming weeks.

Of the council candidates on 5 May, 162 were Labour/Co-op. Of these, 116 were elected covering a total of 47 different councils.

The figures also show that when most of these seats were last contested in 2012, just 65 candidates were elected – so these results are up 51 on four years ago.

The local authorities where most Labour and Co-operative councillors were elected were Stevenage with 10; Bristol, Ipswich and North Herts with six; and Peterborough and Sunderland with five each.

May 5 also saw police and crime commissioners face re-election. The Co-op Party won three of the six PCC races that Labour/Co-operative PCC candidates contested: Keith Hunter was elected in Humberside, former MP Alun Michael in South Wales was re-elected and Jeff Cuthbert in Gwent emerged victorious.

But the sitting Labour / Co-op PCC, Olly Martins, was defeated in Bedfordshire.

Nationally, the number of Labour/Co-op councillors may be relatively small but the increasing power of city mayors with multi-million budgets and key influence on policy could offer real opportunities for the co-operative movement in determining future direction.

New mayors Paul Dennett, who replaces Ian Stewart in Salford, and Joe Anderson in Liverpool are both members of the Co-operative Party and likely to favour co-operative solutions to austerity measures.

The Co-op Party strengthened its position in Wales (left) and Scotland (right) and in England, scored mayoral posts including Liverpool (centre)
The Co-op Party strengthened its position in Wales (left) and Scotland (right) and in England, scored mayoral posts including Liverpool (centre)

The new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has already pledged a number of co-operative proposals for London, prioritising co-operative housing, community energy and a not-for-profit mutual bus sector as part of his policy programme. In the lead-up to the election, he also unveiled a manifesto “for all Londoners”, which included proposals for co-operative, mutual and not-for-profit organisations.

Mr Khan, who won a resounding victory over Tory Zac Goldsmith, said this ambition drew inspiration from the co-operative sector, “which in London contains hundreds of thousands of member-owners and hundreds of small- and medium sized community-led enterprises”.

He said co-op values “can play an active and positive role in the future of London and all Londoners”.

He has appointed Labour/Co-op AM Joanne McCartney as his deputy mayor.

Five of the six existing Labour/Co-op London Assembly members were re-elected, including McCartney. Others include Len Duvall, leader of the London Labour Group and former deputy mayor and mayoral candidate Nicky Gavron.

But long-standing Labour/Co-op campaigner Murad Qureshi AM fell victim to the ‘list ‘system and was not re-elected after Leonie Cooper won a constituency seat.

Of the other seven AMs re-elected or elected for the first time, six are members who the London party now plans to make Labour/Co-op – which gives an overall tally of 11 of the 12 Labour Assembly members.

As the Assembly comprises 25 members in all, their input could be significant in the years ahead.

Overall, the news was bleak for Labour in Scotland. The SNP came top of the poll with 63 seats (six seats lost), while the Scottish Conservatives came second with 31 seats (16 gained) and Labour was third with 24 seats (13 lost) – an outcome unthinkable before the overwhelming surge of the SNP following the referendum in 2014.

The good news is that the number of Labour / Co-operative MSPs actually doubled from four to eight. Of the four candidates standing for re-election, all were successful, while there were four newly elected MSPs. The results mean that a third of the Labour group in Holyrood is now Labour/Co-operative.

As Scottish Labour bids to rebuild its shattered support in the next few years it can take comfort from the fact that Labour Co-op stalwarts like former leader Johann Lamont will be helping the fightback. And it could have been far worse.

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale failed to secure the Edinburgh East seat she was defending but she returned to Holyrood via a regional ‘list’ seat. Ms Dugdale was defeated in her constituency by 5,087 votes to the SNP’s Ash Denham, but she holds on through the Lothian region seat.

The others re-elected were Claudia Beamish for South of Scotland and Johann Lamont and James Kelly in Glasgow. The four newly elected candidates were Rhoda Grant and David Stewart, for Highlands and Islands, and Neil Bibby and Ken Macintosh in the West of Scotland.

As the final results were declared, Co-op Party general secretary Claire McCarthy said she was pleased with the overall outcome and prospects for the Co-operative Party.

Claire McCarthy welcomed Party successes, such as the re-election of South Wales PCC Alun Michael
Claire McCarthy welcomed Party successes, such as the re-election of South Wales PCC Alun Michael

“It is encouraging to see the number of Party representatives increase at all levels of government,” she said. “Our group of Welsh Assembly members is now the largest ever, and our representation in Scotland has doubled. In local government too, we were pleased to see pioneering co-operative councils such as Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Newcastle remain under Labour and Co-operative control, with our overall number of councillors across England also increasing.

“Whether in government or opposition, we are looking forward to working with our newly elected and re-elected representatives – and indeed with co-operators of all parties – to ensure the co-operative movement has a strong voice in the rooms where decisions are made.”

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