I live in a suburb of Nottingham, UK. It’s almost smack bang in the centre of England (though this means it’s somewhat in the bottom third of the UK as a whole by latitude). It’s one of those confusing cities that can be large or small depending on definition.
• The “Unitary Authority” (“City” political entity in charge of everything) is defined by the traditional “City of Nottingham” with a population of barely one third of a million.
• Like so many cities, “Urban Nottingham” (including sprawling suburbs covered administratively by the County of Nottinghamshire, NOT the City) but which in practice is “Nottingham” by way of integrated health-care, buses, and various other services, is much larger – around three-quarters of a million strong.
• If you go up to “Metro Nottingham” (quoted on Wikipedia but which might – it’s not clear – include the “neighbouring city of Derby” which might be regarded as “commuter belt” but which would strongly contest membership of Nottm!) then we’re talking 1.5 million.
Why give this long intro? Because on “Super Thursday” recently, all the bits outside “City of Nottingham” elected councillors for Nottinghamshire. Notts had traditionally been a part of the Labour “Red Wall”. It began to crumble 4 years ago and collapsed entirely this year. The media “analysis” was largely simplistic about the collapse of Labour. I’m not arguing they are wrong. They are right. But for the wrong reasons.
I’ve had a chance to delve deeper into the Notts data. I think I see what went on, and the Tories must be (reluctantly) admired. Why? For their electoral guile in Nottinghamshire and likely elsewhere in both encouraging “local” parties to peel off economically left, socially conservative Labour voters, so incumbent Labour councillors lost, but then strangling such parties when their “brexit fueled desire for more local power” came to be a threat to the Conservative Party’s centralising nature.
The “story” of Nottinghamshire is both simple and complex. The Tories had 31 seats and had previously led a coalition. They needed 34 to govern alone (66 seats in Nottinghamshire). Their previous coalition partner was a regional party (Mansfield Independents with 4 seats). Ashfield is the district that borders Mansfield (and there are 7 districts in Notts – not necessarily equal sized in population so think of US States but with some “double candidate divisions” to try to somewhat offset this). Ashfield has 10 seats, 5 of which had been held by the Ashfield Independents plus a 6th by a sister party which then merged this election, effectively making the Ashfield Independents hold 6 of 10 divisions. For those puzzled by terminology, divisions is an old term used for county subdivisions. It’s akin to wards but not necessarily the same as a ward. Of the other 4 Ashfield divisions, 3 were Tory, 1 Labour.
The Tories clearly knew ALL FOUR WERE GOING TO BE LOST (which they duly were – the Independents now hold all 10 seats). Why? The Tories “moved” one of their councillors (who also happens to be the newly elected, as of 2019, Member of Parliament for Mansfield) to contest a seat in neighbouring Mansfield for this election. He had been one of the three Tory Ashfield Councillors – perhaps the key one.
On the one hand, fair enough for the guy to move into a district more obviously contained within his Westminster Parliamentary constituency. On the other hand, his council seat was a stone’s throw away and “moving” ahead of a landslide that nobody in the media predicted certainly raises questions….such as “How did you know that was going to happen?”
So the Tories knew they were in danger of moving backwards – they in fact lost 5 seats (mostly to independents) so now were 3+5=8 seats short of a bare majority of 34. Getting 8 seats from Labour (which was exactly what they got) would do it, but nobody likes the bare minimum. So who did they go after to get some additional seats? Their own coalition partners, the Mansfield Independents. All 4 of their divisions fell (though one division to another, differently affiliated independent), 3 to the Tories (including the aforementioned MP). Voila. 3 division majority of 37, what you see quoted on the news.
It is all presented as a “total Labour failure”, which, ultimately, it is. HOWEVER, the right wing, over the past few years before and since the Brexit Referendum, have:
• encouraged people in deprived “Old Labour” districts like Mansfield and Ashfield who felt utterly let down by New Labour to follow UKIP etc,
• then after “Brexit was delivered”, regional “parties for local people”.
• The Tories even then went into coalition with such a “local party”.
• Then when it suited them, they ate them. The now zero-seat Mansfield Independents Party should have remembered what happened to the Liberal Democrats when they went into coalition with the Tories.
The “short version” lesson:
• The Conservatives in a key “former red wall county” actually LOST quite heavily to a new party of “older Lefties” who were not just “anti-Brussels” but “anti-Westminster”. Such people were left-wing economically and small-c conservative socially (and very “LEAVE” supporting).
• However, the Tories clawed back losses there by
(1) exterminating their coalition partner – another similar “local party based in Old Labour area” – turnout DOUBLED in those seats compared to rest of Notts – 60% in a local election in Mansfield? That’s incredible, as in “unbelievable”, and
(2) grabbing Labour seats that were also “Old Labourish” but had “Starmer/New Labour” candidates.
The lesson? Whilst the 4 Labour Arnold candidates beat the trend by being visible in DOING things for their constituents, elsewhere Labour got hammered. Not always from a “direct blow” from the Tories, but otherwise from the inevitable conclusion of a long process that started with the Blair decision to leave the left behind.