Leicester's Labour mayor Peter Soulsby won re-election...

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England’s large cities
stay loyal to Labour

By Andrew Stevens

10 May 2015: Alongside a national election which saw UK Prime Minister David Cameron returned for a second term of office and the resignation of the three main opposition party leaders, voters in England have seen a number of key local election races in cities and towns.  Despite retaining control of the big English cities, the Labour Party struggled to make headway in non-metropolitan areas.  Elsewhere, London mayor Boris Johnson returned as a Member of Parliament (MP), sparking a year-long race to succeed him when his term ends in 2016.

• Parliamentary elections
• Municipal council elections
• Mayoral elections

Parliamentary election results impact on cities
Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives were returned to office with a governing majority and will be relieved to have formed a new administration without their centrist Liberal Democrat coalition partners, whose number dropped from 56 to just eight MPs.  The Conservatives’ election manifesto included a number of city-themed pledges, including the devolution of “far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors”. 

Reappointed UK Chancellor (finance minister) George Osborne said his priority in the new government would be to “focus on building the Northern Powerhouse”, referring to his drive to rebalance the UK economy away from its dependence on London and south east England.  Following Labour’s spectacular rout in its former traditional heartland of Scotland, where it was reduced to just one seat (down from 41), Boris Johnson added that “some kind of federal offer” was necessary to curb the rise of the triumphant pro-independence Scottish National Party, which swept the board with 56 of 59 Scottish seats.  The day before the election Johnson suggested that a “grown up conversation” needed to be had about a “federal structure for the UK”, reiterating his own national ambitions and mayoral lobbying for greater decentralisation to England’s cities.

Some observers were sceptical about local government’s prospects under the newly elected Conservative government, which is committed to £30bn of spending cuts.  Jonathan Carr-West, who runs a local government think tank, wrote that the party was offering “a Henry Ford style of devolution in which you can have any form of localism you want – as long as it’s a combined [metro] authority with an elected mayor”. 

Labour keeps control of large cities
Aside from the ‘seismic’ national election results, a number of key city mayoral and council races took place across England, including in the main metropolitan cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, where Labour retained control as expected. 

In Liverpool, where 31 seats were being contested, Labour won 29 while the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party secured one each. In neighbouring Manchester, the Labour Party made a clean sweep of all 31 contested seats. Sheffield, once considered a Liberal-Democrat stronghold, elected 21 Labour councillors, five Liberal Democrats and one each from the Green Party and the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Leeds was the only large northern city where the Conservatives performed reasonably well. They were successful in eight wards but are still no match for Labour whose tally totalled 23 seats. The Liberal Democrats won two with one seat going to the Green Party. One seat was won by an independent.

Despite increasing its national vote from 265,000 in 2010 to almost 1.2 million in this year's general elections, the Green Party's local results were mixed. The party lost control of Brighton council, the only UK council where it formed the administration, but its sole Westminster MP retained her seat of Brighton Pavillion. In Bristol, where the Greens had high hopes of winning a parliamentary seat but ultimately failed, they made strong gains in council elections, winning eight seats. They gained five seats from the Liberal Democrats and two from Labour and are now the third-largest party on the council after Labour and the Conservatives. In the council elections held on 7 May, Labour won 11 seats, the Greens 8, the Conservatives 3 and the Liberal Democrats 1.

Mayoral elections
Labour’s Leicester city mayor Sir Peter Soulsby was comfortably re-elected to a second term, winning on the first ballot with 54.6% of the vote.  On party tickets, unitary council incumbents Dave Hodgson (Liberal Democrat) of Bedford and Torbay’s Gordon Oliver (Conservative) were re-elected on the second ballot, while a lengthy second round count also saw Labour’s Dave Budd succeed retiring mayor Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough by just 256 votes against his independent challenger.  Oliver however announced his intention to hold a referendum in 2016 to abolish Torbay’s elected mayor system as he no longer believed in it, possibly as he only received 621 votes more the Lib Dem candidate.

The district of Copeland, better known as the port town of Whitehaven in the Lake District, chose independent Mike Starkie, who won with second preferences in a poll marred by spoilt ballots on account of confused voters in their first ever mayoral election. Another district council, Mansfield in the Midlands, elected a new independent mayor Kate Allsop.

As well choosing a new party leader, Labour will be selecting its mayoral candidate for London in July.  Leading candidates for the nomination, which include London MPs Diane Abbott, David Lammy and former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, have attacked the party’s agreed plans to limit public registration in the primary to just 12 days in the immediate aftermath of its election defeat.  10 council leaders in Greater Manchester will also select the city region’s first ever indirectly elected mayor later this month, ahead of direct elections promised for 2017, with two Labour contenders vying for the role.  Police commissioner Tony Lloyd will square off against Wigan council leader (Lord) Peter Smith for the two year stint, agreed with central government as part of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ vision.

Labour determined to consolidate
its power in England’s major cities

By Andrew Stevens

27 April 2015: On 7 May 2015 elections in the UK will determine not only who forms the next national government but also the control of town and city halls up and down the land. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron is offering a bonanza of new powers for cities, which adopt ‘metro mayors’, while the opposition Labour Party is promising to devolve £30bn of spending from central government to all local authorities. Municipal elections for the metro areas around the big cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle will be held alongside polls for directly elected mayors in six local authorities.

In an election thus far determined by the likely outcome of no one party being able to govern the UK alone, attention has focused on the likely shape of any new coalition government, with the Conservatives standing accused of stoking anti-Scottish sentiment by scaremongering over any coalition or minority Labour government being supported by the separatist Scottish National Party.

Of the parties’ policies on local government and cities, the Conservatives have promised to decentralise powers over transport, economic development and social care to any metro area which agrees to introduce a directly elected mayor (though nine of 10 biggest cities declined to do so in referendums held in 2012). However, this would also be accompanied by £30bn of public sector cuts over the next two years.

For their part, Labour have offered to go further and decentralise £30bn of central budgets to all local authorities’ control, not just those adopting an elected metro mayor, as well as allowing councils to retain any increase in business tax revenue they accrue through growth policies. The Conservatives’ current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have pledged to introduce ‘devolution on demand’ to any group of English local authorities, which can demonstrate popular local support for this, as well as proportional representation for local elections. All parties are broadly pledging to respect the devolution process of more powers to Scotland and Wales after the election, though Labour have suggested that nations and city regions of the UK should be included in a reformed Parliament through a new German or Dutch-style Senate.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all support a post-election Constitutional Convention to determine the pace and shape of future reform and devolution within the UK, not least on account of the thorny issue of Scottish independence following last autumn’s close run referendum

Local elections taking place (England only) on 7 May include:
• Metropolitan boroughs – 36 local authorities, to elect one third of seats (in Doncaster all seats due to boundary changes), a total of 794 seats
• Unitary authorities – 49 local authorities, 30 to elect all seats, 19 to elect one third, a total of 1,577 seats
• District councils – 194 local authorities, 130 to elect all seats, 64 to elect one third, a total of 5,451 seats
• Mayoral elections – Bedford (unitary), Copeland (district), Leicester (unitary), Mansfield (district), Middlesbrough (unitary) and Torbay (unitary)

Ahead of the May polls, Labour already controls 30 of the 36 metropolitan boroughs (the metro areas around the big cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle) and could potentially expect to take several more. Conservative hopes of remaining in control of the Manchester suburb of Trafford look unlikely, while in the Yorkshire district of Calderdale (better known as Halifax) Labour are confident of taking outright control for the first time since 1998. Labour however are anxious that last year’s poll-topping performance by the right wing UK Independence Party is not repeated in their stronghold of Rotherham, which has since seen a national scandal of widespread child sex abuse in the town, leading to the UK government taking control of the council. Among the elections for unitary authorities, which provide all local services, the Green Party could be removed from the sole local authority it currently controls, Brighton and Hove, on account of local discontent at the minority party’s administration.

In the elections for the six directly elected mayors, Dave Hodgson is seeking a third term in Bedford and hoping the Liberal Democrats’ national low ratings will not damage his chances, though the party’s other elected mayor in Watford managed to achieve her own third term last year despite their otherwise dire national performance.

Labour man Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s former city council leader and Member of Parliament, looks certain to gain a second term, while Conservative Gordon Oliver in Torbay could be forgiven for being less confident following his attempted removal from office last year by party colleagues on the council.

In Mansfield and Middlesbrough voters can choose from an array of parties and independent candidates on account of their independent mayors retiring from office after three terms. Copeland district council in England’s scenic Lake District is electing a mayor for the first time following a successful ‘Time for Change’ referendum to introduce the office, which was held in 2014 but saw elections deferred until this May on cost grounds for the cash-strapped local authority. District councils in England provide basic environmental services but not education or social services, unlike unitary and metropolitan authorities.

As well as the polls for directly elected mayors, Greater Manchester will select its first ever indirectly-elected ‘interim’ Mayor ahead of elections for a directly-elected city chief in 2017, as agreed between the metro ‘combined authority’ and the UK government in exchange for substantial devolved powers. 

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