At the time of writing, results of the 4th May 2017 local and regional elections are still trickling in but it is already clear that the Conservatives have made substantial gains, including in areas that have not been favourable to the Tories for decades.
Tees Valley and the West of England have Tory metro mayors with powers modelled on those of the Mayor of London’s. While Liverpool and Greater Manchester have elected Labour mayors as expected, at the local authority level the Conservatives have gained over 300 council seats, and have outright control of at least 10 new councils. Theresa May’s party has not only taken a huge number of votes from Labour, it has also virtually reversed all the gains made by UKIP over the last decade. The Liberal Democrats have also lost seats.
The question now is how the Conservatives intend to use these new power bases. Control of local authorities can be a useful talent-building structure, nurturing political talent before graduating to the national stage. Local politics is also a good way for a party to demonstrate competence, and it helps political parties stay connected with the everyday issues and concerns of ordinary people outside of the ‘Westminster bubble’. In the past, the Liberal Democrats have effectively used local politics to build their strength before winning parliamentary constituencies, as they did in South-West London and Cornwall. Strong local organisation is also useful for party fundraising for campaign resources.
Local strongholds could serve as a foundation for the Conservatives’ national political work, but it is also possible that significant tensions could emerge between Tory councils and the central government. Councils’ funding has been cut significantly, and the Prime Minister’s instincts seem to be to ask local authorities to do more with less money. The government’s recently-published air quality agenda, for example, has put significant responsibility for tacking air pollution on to local authorities, with very little new money to help councils tackle the issue.
If the newly elected local Conservatives feel squeezed between their constituents’ demands and government frugality, their loyalty to the Prime Minister’s agenda could be severely tested.
At its best, today’s election victories give the Conservatives the opportunity to further detoxify their brand, and to try shed the stereotype of a party dominated by wealthy South-Eastern Englishmen. There is the opportunity to demonstrate sensitivity to local issues and practical problem-solving.
At its worst, the tensions between the local and the national Conservatives could become a new source of disagreement in a party that is rather prone to factionalism.
With the great dividing question in Tory politics – Europe – now apparently settled in favour of the Eurosceptics, what will become the defining debate of the Conservatives in the coming decades? The answer may be rooted in the results of yesterday’s election.