By Sunder Katwala
Local issues appear almost irrelevant to the local elections, to judge by the post-election media inquests, dominated by speculation about the fallout in terms of coalition tensions at Westminster, or what we can learn about the parties’ prospects at the next General Election. Yet perhaps there was one even “bigger picture” question for the 2012 local elections, with John Curtice among those to suggest that the results could shape forthcoming negotiations about the future of the United Kingdom in haggling over the terms and conditions of a referendum.
The Scottish elections do seem to have checked, temporarily at least, the political rise of Alex Salmond. The SNP had a disappointing night, though it was largely because the party had not played the usual ‘expectations game’ of talking down its prospects, instead boasting that it would continue to surge forward, with its eyes on the prize of taking Glasgow City Council after 40 years of Labour control.
The headlines were captured by Labour surprising itself by winning a majority in Glasgow itself, and defeating the SNP in Edinburgh too. Though beyond the hype, the SNP had a relatively good night, in historic context, winning control of Dundee and Angus councils, and claiming victory overall, on the basis of winning 424 seats overall to Labour’s 392, as both parties gained from a Liberal Democrat collapse.
Scottish voters seem to be demonstrating a ‘horses for courses’ instinct for treating different elections differently.
Scotland was the only part of the UK to see a swing towards Labour in the 2010 General Election, with Gordon Brown’s appeal to “keep the Conservatives out” having a rather stronger attraction north of the border than south of it. Re-running a similar anti-Tory campaign a year later in Scottish elections saw Labour routed, because the message was irrelevant to the question of who governs at Holyrood.
The SNP swept to a stunning victory a year ago, becoming a majority government for the first time, allowing Alex Salmond to make the political weather in Scotland and, to a considerable extent, across Britain as a whole. Having delivered power to Salmond and the SNP, voters yesterday appeared in a mood to check it once again, with the SNP vote down 14% year-on-year against their Scottish Parliament triumph. The Scotsman’s editorial verdict, viewing the overall Scottish local election picture as “a draw”, saw “the electorate reminding Mr. Salmond he is in office to improve their well-being, not just to campaign for independence”.
So the 2012 results are another reminder that voting Labour out and the SNP in does not necessarily entail support for Scottish independence when that choice comes about.
If there is an exception to this sophisticated disaggregation of different electoral contests it is the stark decline of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who hold 11 Scottish seats at Westminster, but whose 2012 results were as bad as the drubbing which they suffered in the 2011 Scottish elections.
The LibDems ended the night with just 71 Scottish council seats, losing 80 councillors, and falling well behind the Scottish Conservatives in local government, who returned 115 councillors.
The Edinburgh LibDems, who had led an SNP-LibDem administration, were hit hard on two fronts, being blamed for the city’s troubled trams project as well as the Westminster coalition. The LibDems now hold just three Edinburgh council seats, with the Green Party advancing to six seats. The Scottish LibDems have been pushed back to boltholes in the Highlands.
The LibDems suffered similarly heavy losses in Wales, holding 71 council seats but losing 66, with a significant loss of 18 seats in Cardiff as Labour took majority control of the LibDem run council.
The one governing party in Britain to have a very good night was Welsh Labour, which made 231 gains for a total of 576 seats, gaining control of eight more councils, including Swansea and Wrexham, as well as Cardiff. The Conservatives also suffered heavy losses, while new Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Woods was unable to deliver any immediate advance, with the party losing seats against a historically strong performance in 2008.
The 2012 local elections do mark one other shift on the electoral map, confirming the effective exit of the British National Party as an electoral presence in British politics – just three years after their breakthrough in winning a European Parliamentary seat.
The party was defending twelve seats, and lost all of them, while failing to come close in any other contests, having fielded around 150 other candidates. The party ran over 250 candidates last year and 737 in 2010, marking a very significant retreat since being routed in its Barking parliamentary and local campaign in May 2010.
The party prepared for the loss of its London Assembly seat by arguing that this reflected the loss of “real indigenous people” from the capital, which would appear to contradict its earlier explanation that it was running a Uruguayan-born Mayoral candidate to help to shift perceptions that it was a racist party which opposed all immigration.
The BNP fared no better in the north. It has been represented on Burnley council since 2002 but achieved only one second place finish this time, also losing seats in Amber Valley, Rotherham, Pendle and Amber Valley, as well as in Epping Forest in Essex.
Nick Griffin will retain some public presence through their European Parliament seats, which are also a crucial source of funds for the almost moribund party, but will struggle to make any serious effort to retain those seats in 2014.
An increasingly fragmented far right is now likely to return to the pre-2002 situation, where a range of parties – the BNP, a new EDL-British Freedom alliance, the old National Front or the nationalist English Democrats – are all likely to sporadically contest council seats, but with limited chances of winning any wards, still less making a significant electoral breakthrough.
Having fielded 29 candidates in Wales in 2008, the BNP could run only two candidates this time, securing 151 votes and last place in one Blaneau Gwent ward, and seventh place of eight with 110 votes in one Wrexham contest. (The BNP’s Wrexham candidate, Mike Whitby, also stood for Mayor of Liverpool, where he was arrested on suspicion of fraud over his nomination papers, before finishing 11th, pushing the National Front into 12th place).
The BNP did even worse in Scotland. The national organizer apologized to members after failing to submit candidates’ nomination papers ahead of the deadline. This deprived the party of the chance to see if it could improve on its 11th place in the Scottish Parliament elections, with 0.78% of the national vote.
Making the best of the situation, organizer David Orr wrote a Facebook message, spotted by the Hope Not Hate blog, which contrasted the BNP with other parties who were only pounding the streets during elections.
“The BNP will still be on the streets after May 3rd and we are not even asking for your vote in Scotland this year, just your support!”
Perhaps this may become a more popular theme of BNP advocacy across the UK, with beleaguered BNP leader Nick Griffin tweeting about the results on Friday:
“BNP only game in town. Our problem is that our millions of admirers don’t vote for us”.