This year’s local election results delivered a number of messages: a disastrous Conservative showing that exceeded its worst-case-scenario; a strong result for Labour which became the largest party of local government for the first time in 20 years and; an impressive showing for Liberal Democrats and the Greens which improved upon their typically-strong local performances.
Extrapolating local election results into national projections has its limitations, not only due to the fact that only two thirds of England’s councils voted (with no elections in Wales or Scotland) but also the prevalence of tactical voting and local issues that hold much greater sway at local elections, influencing already-low turnout figures. But these limitations do not deter analysis!
Reviewing the results
The results made clear the breakdown in the electoral coalition that has allowed the Conservatives to dominate politics for the last decade. The stronghold over ‘red’ and ‘blue’ wallers, at opposing ends of the electoral axis, haemorrhaged both ways.
This is an opportunity for Labour, which has not been dominant in rural areas since Blair, and also the Liberal Democrats, who will hope to parlay their performance into becoming kingmaker. In order for either of these scenarios to materialise, both parties will need to make serious on their rural credentials.
The Co-operative Party, Labour’s little sister, recently published its Rural Commission Report which explored the challenges that rural and remote communities face. It found a growing disconnect and feeling of second-best prevalent. The report recommends establishing a commission to monitor rural proofing, and strengthening community power with more investment in parish and town councils, as well as county mayors. As Labour formulates its manifesto content, including a National Policy Forum consultation which the CLA responded to in spring, it would be wise to reference the body of work that has been published in recent years – including the APPG reports on improving rural productivity and the cost-of-living crisis.
To capitalize on their barnstorming success, the Liberal Democrats will need to graduate from their selective nimby-ism and positioning as the ‘anti-Tory’ vote and develop a coherent plan for the rural economy, which they are certainly capable of, with a call last year to appoint a cross-departmental minister for rural communities – a key ask of the APPG’s rural productivity report.
The Renters Reform Bill
Meanwhile the government, now looking over its shoulder, should feel compelled to make policies that work for the rural economy instead of destroying it. A key example of this is the Renters Reform Bill, in which the government intends to repeal Section 21 or ‘no fault’ evictions – an example of a policy that might play well with city voters, but is totally unsuitable to the rural housing market.
The CLA has heard of many members who are considering selling their properties, leading to a reduction in the private rented sector, at a time when demand is at an all-time high. It is precisely this type of policy-making – ill thought-through and undermining the govermment’s objectives – that risks further alienating voters.
The rural offering from all parties will need to be sufficient to protect from the continuing realignment of British politics, and its increasing factionalism both inter and intra party.