Stormy waters lie ahead for Labour in local government, most of all in London where the conflict over ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ brings overtones of Brexit

by Paul Wheeler

For generations Labour locally had a unique and enduring offer for working class communities. Labour councils provided decent and affordable housing for millions of families and in time their adult children, they offered high standards of education for their children and in many instances provided secure employment across a range of skills. In return those communities provided the bedrock of Labour support across a whole range of towns and cities.

But that solidarity has been shattered by decades of privatisation and council house sales and none of those essential services are now provided on any scale by local councils. More recently national politicians have urged supporters to view local elections as a referendum on the respective party in power centrally (‘send them a message’) much to the outrage of local councillors who wanted to be judged independently of their parties national standing.

But that strategy has faltered in recent elections. Local politics has become more transactional. This is most clearly seen in the rise of hyper localist independent groups bidding for council seats and usually aligned with a desire to maintain property values and stop any form of housing development. For the Conservatives the trend is most clearly seen in rural and suburban District Councils where they have lost control to an array of Residents Groups and Liberal Democrats trading on a localist anti-development platform

For Labour the trend is more complex. In many of its metropolitan councils and county councils the hyper-localist parties have been able to exploit long standing grievances in local Townships that the ‘Town Hall’ doesn’t understand or care about their concern. There was evidence of this in the recent Batley and Spen by-election in respect of the policies of the ‘remote’ Kirklees Council. Across conurbations such as Greater Manchester such discontent has translated into support for independent councillors in traditional Labour towns such as Radcliffe, Farnworth and Failsworth.

The Conservatives as the governing party have a range of responses to the rise of transactional politics. They can offer a range of financial incentives such as Town Fund Bids (which have an unerring tendency to be awarded to Tory councils and constituencies) to keep voters on board locally. They can also simply abolish troublesome District Councils as part of a wider move to larger unitary councils.

More strategically the Tories have learnt the need for populist local leaders. A good example is Abi Brown a pragmatic and charismatic leader who understands the need for the Tories to deliver on their levelling up agenda if they are to retain support in working class towns such as Stoke. The tragedy for Labour is that equally talented local leaders such as Tudor Evans in Plymouth are languishing in opposition.

Even where Labour councils want to do the right thing such as build council houses it is often existing council tenants who will complain about over development.  Combined with the long-term collapse of working-class solidarity there is trouble ahead for Labour as the ‘Town Hall Party’

Birmingham is a good example of the problems ahead in May 2022. With a population of over one million it is the largest council in Europe and the self-styled ‘jewel in the crown’ of English local government. Contrary to perceptions it has never been a safe Labour city and only returned to Labour control in 2012. A combination of all out elections, an unfavourable local government boundary review and the introduction of a large and untested city centre traffic management scheme mean that it is a critical electoral battleground. Moreover, as the venue for the 2022 Tory Party conference it will be one that the Tories will be keen to win and contrast the reaction there to the somewhat lukewarm warm reception Keir Starmer could expect in his conference city of Liverpool.

It’s not only Birmingham where local government boundary reviews will create problems over the next two years. In Greater Manchester a series of such all out elections will have a major impact on councils such as Bury, Oldham Trafford and Bolton. Elsewhere Labour will have a hard time regaining or retaining unitary councils such as Plymouth, Swindon and Blackpool.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for Labour lies in London. Part of the problem here is that since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 London has swung so significantly in London such that in several Boroughs such as Lewisham and Newham there are simply no opposition councillors and many more have huge Labour Groups. It would be a difficult record to maintain at any time and May 2022 presents some specific difficulties, some of them sadly self-inflicted, for London Labour.

Perhaps most notably in Croydon a period of particularly poor financial performance has seen a successful local campaign for a Mayoral referendum which very few commentators expect Labour to win. Across Inner London the Green Party are hoping to replicate their success in Bristol and Sheffield in 2021 amongst the under 30s. Elsewhere many London Labour councils have become locked in a war against many of its residents over the introduction of Government sanctioned ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’. In many areas such as Enfield, Southwark and Greenwich these have seen traffic displaced from relatively prosperous suburban streets to residential main roads where the majority of the residents are usually poorer and already suffer from more congested and polluted roads. At times the resultant campaigns have had overtones of Brexit in terms of how Labour councils have treated traditional Labour supporters. In Greenwich a Labour councillor publicly asked plumbers and electricians to use buses rather than transit vans to do their jobs.  In Islington the council dismissed a long serving caretaker for appearing in an anti-LTN video (causing the GMB to withhold its funding from the London Labour Party). It is significant that whilst such LTNs are heavily promoted by the Government not a single Conservative Council in London has adopted them and many Conservative Opposition Groups are at the forefront of local campaigns to remove them.

Perhaps more than any other party councillors play a huge role in the Labour Party. They are the backbone of many constituency parties and through voluntary contributions are the major financial contributors locally and nationally to the Party. The momentum provided by huge local government gains in 1994 and 1995 was hugely significant in the 1997 general election success especially in Shire England where the positive experience of Labour local government gave many first time Labour voters the confidence to support the party nationally.

The trend is not uniformly against Labour locally. It is noticeable that in the Mayoral elections in Greater Manchester this year Andy Burnham won every single ward in Greater Manchester including those in constituencies lost to the Conservatives just twelve months previously. Labour also scored notable successes in Mayoral Contests in the West of England and Cambridgeshire (although the voting system that secured such victories is shortly to be replaced by the traditional First past the Post method)

Experience elsewhere, most notably in Germany with the success of the SDP, shows that party resilience is achieved by strong local leaders and powerful local councils. The question for Labour now is how to create the conditions for its own local resilience and success.

Paul Wheeler writes on local politics

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16 Responses to “Stormy waters lie ahead for Labour in local government, most of all in London where the conflict over ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ brings overtones of Brexit”

  1. Good article from Croydon. hackney, Leeisham either the libdems or right side f independents could take over councils
    For readers outside of the metro bubble

    I suppose The comparison is SNP in Scotland
    Actually Bromley or Hayes could see them have no labour councillors 191 days from now

  2. With boundary changes it’s going from 4% tory lead to a overall majority to 5% for a overall majority
    Too 13% current lead for a labour majority to a 12% lead for a overall majority
    This is down to the fact even with boundary changes The SNP will still massively have more MPs per vote than anyone else
    In the 2001 election had labour and Tories both got equal votes labour would’ve formed a overall majority of 17 due to where the Tory Vote is stacked in The Southern Blue Wall
    Opinion polls still show shy Tories
    It’s almost impossible for their to be boundary changes to make it anything other than it being harder for labour to win a overall majority then The Tories
    It also means Tories could get less votes and more MPs as Labour’s votes stacked in the cities

  3. Anne says:

    Yes, Labour has an uphill struggle to gain power at every level of Government – local and National. Andy Burnham does have control in Manchester. A lot will depend on the delivery of the ‘northern powerhouse’ and if promises are kept. There is also the ‘towns funds’ which is promising millions to identified towns (mainly in Tory constituencies) So far only 45 out of the 100 have been approved. Promising money and not delivering will not be forgotten. Farmers are unhappy. The trade deal with New Zealand has not gone down well – the NFU has said ‘there is nothing in it for UK farmers.’ Four out of five of the Tory MPs are in favour of a coal mine in Cumbria -this is going against public opinion which is becoming more tuned in to the damage of fossil fuels on the climate.
    Many of us have watched the programme Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution. What was most striking was the contrast in the government of then and now. Blair’s government consisting of decent, intellectual, and purposeful politicians as opposed to the shallow shower that we currently suffer under. In nearly every sphere of public life of practitioners in the last 20 years there has been improvements. Most professionals, such as doctors, dentists, teachers, have got better – more responsible and enlightened. In contrast to the present government where standards have slipped so dramatically. Johnson lacks the leadership skills, capability and integrity to run the country. Javid is certainly out of his depth as Health Minister.
    The tide is beginning to turn.

  4. Tafia says:

    Labour Councillor in Brighton displays Covid symptoms, feels unwell, temperature, cough etc, so does the right thing and takes a PCR test. He then does exactly the wrong thing while waiting for the result – mixes with other people, carries on as normal, attends a council meeting where he was coughing during the meeting and apparently telling people it was just a cold. Hours later, back comes his result, positive. Everyone he was in contact with is now having to be tested, isolate etc. All because he couldn’t – or wouldn’t,
    follow simple moron-level instructions.

    Labour virtue signalling over masks in Commons, but couldn’t be bothered on their conference.

    Ashworth goes on Times Radio, makes a statement about Plan A Plan B etc and Labour’s position. Six minutes later, a Labopur spokesman has to go on Sky News to clarify Labour’s position – which is the exact opposite of what Ashworth had said. For the record, Labour’s actual position is it is not in favpour of Plan B. It is in favour of making Plan A work.

  5. Tafia says:

    And you can add to that the fact that Labour is against Covid passports in Scotland (and opposed them), in favour of them in Wales (and brought them in) and has no idea on it’s position in England.

  6. Tafia says:

    Claudia Webbe – found guilty of harassment recently, doing a group photo with other Labour MPs, ironically with the Shadow Justice Minister.

    Some people have no shame – and that includes all the Labour MPs who then promptly plastered the photo all over social media, although to her credit Seema Malhotra cropped our Claudia off the picture that she posted.

  7. Imran khan says:

    The proof of this is that Labour recently lost a ward in Tower Hamlets to the Musliim Aspire Party over road clousures.

  8. John P Reid says:

    Yes I saw Claudia pic to
    Look forward to poll of polls for October

  9. Tafia says:

    And now the moment you have been waiting for – polling figures for October.

    Across October there were 21 polls conducted at various times by all the major polling agencies. Polling average was (figure in brackets compared to last month)

    Con 39.6% (+0.2%)
    Lab 34.6% (-0.2%)
    LDem 8.6% (-0.4%)
    Grn 6.5% (+0.1%)
    Oth 11.0% (+0.5%)
    ave lead Con over Lab – 5.1% (+0.51%)

    October was pretty volatile for Laboras the month rolled on. The Tories ranged between 37-41%, Labour ranged between 30-37% and the LDems between 7-11%. Labour never equalled the Tories at any stage, the closest was 1% behind (Delta, 13-15 Oct). . The final quarter of the month showed that the Tories ‘settled’ somewhere around 39-40% and that Labour had settled somwhere around 33-35%. As in previous months there appears to be very very little cross-over from Red to Blue or Blue to Red. What appears to be happening is shifts between Tory and Reform on one side, and drifting between Labour, Lib Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid on the other.

    General Election 12 Dec 2019:
    GB only – Con 44.7%, Lab 33.0%, LDem 11.8%, Grn 2.8%, Oth 7.7%
    GB lead Con over Lab – 11.7%

    Polling figures for 2021 (207 polls)
    Con 41.3%, Lab 34.8%, LDem 8.1%, Grn 5.6%, Oth 10.2%
    (Oth includes SNP, Plaid, Reform, UKIP)
    ave lead Con over Lab 2021 – 6.39%

    Polling figures for Oct (21 polls)
    Con 39.6%, Lab 34.8%, LDem 8.6%, Grn 6.5%, Oth 11.0%
    ave lead Con over Lab Oct – 5.1%


    2 polls during the month that average out as:

    SNP 47%, SCon 22%, SLab 18%, SLD 6%, SGP 2%, Oth 3%

    (SCOTLAND GE 2019
    SNP 45%, Con 25.1%, Lab 18.6%, LDem 9.5%, Oth 1.8%
    Westminster seats (59):
    SNP 48, Con 6, Lab 1, LDem 4)

    Yes:45%, No:48%, DK:7%


    No Polls


    No Polls


    4 Polls during the month that average out as:

    SF: 32%
    FF: 18%
    FG: 24%
    GP: 6%
    LP: 5%
    SD: 4%
    S-PBP: 2%
    AÚ: 2%
    Oth: 7%

    (Irish General Election 2020
    SF: 24.5%
    FF: 22.2%
    FG: 20.9%
    GP: 7.1%
    LP: 4.4%
    SD: 2.9%
    S-PBP: 2.6%
    AÚ: 1.9%
    Oth: 13.5%

    Dail Seats (160)
    SF: 37
    FF: 37
    FG: 35
    GP: 12
    LP: 6
    SD: 6
    S-PBP: 5
    AÚ: 1
    Ind/Min: 21)

    Macron is toast and will probably be eliminated in the first round if he continues to decline at his current rate


  10. John P reid says:

    there was another poll yesterday Pre Owen Paterson that had pretty much the same
    tories 40%
    labour 35%
    libdems 9% greens 4%
    SNP Plaid 5%
    others 8%

    the thing was that all 35% of labour voters will vote labour no matter what and maybe 1% of greens and libdems would tactically vote for each other and if the tories messed up 3% of their vote would go reform and if The tories do better than planed 3% of their current 5% would go tory so the tories could go up to 43%

    so basically there’s no progressive alliance with Libdems/ Labour prepared to swap votes with each other, the only way labour can increase it’s vote outside the mythical non voters turning out is get Tory votes and the only tory voters who are swing voters are the ones who’d go to Reform

    so basiially bar 2 polls the tories have averaged a 6% lead all year?

  11. Tafia says:

    Starmer categorically and unequivocably rules out re-joining the EU on Andrew Marr – “No re-joining the EU”

  12. Tafia says:

    Retailers moaning that there is too much stuff coming into UK now and as a result they are having to launch sales earlier to shift the stuff and because it’s going out on reduced price sales, their profits are taking a hit. Even ‘Black Friday’ has been brought forward by many leading retailers, and Tescos are already offering massive reduced prices on toys etc.

    ALL food retailers now saying there will be no shortages of turkey or any other foodstuff over Xmas.

    On a grim note, global wine prices are set to rocket by a massive 10 per cent by the start of next year because of bad weather, poor harvests (especially by prosecco regions of Itlay & New Zealand vineyards) and fires at major vineyards across southern Europe and Australia.

  13. 2weeks time
    When Tafia puts his breakdown of polls of November the thing that’ll probably be the most noteworthy
    Is the Reform party have been averaging 4% in the last 2 weeks

  14. Tafia says:

    John, The Tories definately took a ‘triple whammy’ caused by the relentless sleaze allegations AND the reaction to the COP26 proposals – which are very very unpopular with the ‘Red Wall’ working class tories, and the migrant problem – again deeply unpopular with the Red Wall working class Tories

    Just under half of the hit appears to have gone to Labour (the sleaze half) and the just over half appears to have gone to Reform (the anti-Green, anti-boat people half).

    In-depth polling is very very bizarre at the moment and at the time of me writing this comment (22 Nov) Reform are consistently above 5% and the biggest things people are reacting to are barren ground for Labour (green stuff and migrants).

    ItThe entire months figures will be very very interesting when they are complete, and will not be what people expect or hope for I think.

  15. John P Reid says:
    The by elections seem to show Labour’s increase is from libdems and the areas The increase is in is areas like London that labour already have, if anything there’s new red wall Essex kent Coventry Sheffield parts of Stoke on Trent
    That are seeing swings to the conservatives in by elections

    Your right in the end of The mnth poll

  16. Tafia says:

    John, Labour did abysmally in council by-elections in some Red Wall seats last week.

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