Sunday, February 19, 2023

GUEST POST 100 signs that Conservative morale is low

If you want to know which parties are up and which are down, look at the changes of allegiance in council chambers, says Augustus Carp.
It looks like an important political event took place in Britain last week. No, not that lady in Scotland who gave up a government job and a nice house in Edinburgh: rather, Cllr Afzal Ahmed of Valley ward, Waltham Forest District Council, became the 100th Conservative councillor to quit the party since the May elections last year.  

Serious political hacks like us get excited by the goings-on in local government, but perhaps we pay too much attention to by-elections and not enough to some of the other indicators of party strength and morale.  

It’s widely accepted - if only by Liberal Democrats - that a strong local organisation is (usually) essential for parliamentary success. A new councillor means one more dedicated deliverer, canvasser and polling day worker, or so we assume.  

Of course, councillors can be notoriously self-important, grandiose and up themselves. But, generally speaking, it’s safe to assume that councillors will try to pull their weight in the next general election, even if it’s impossible to extract them from their own wards.

Good by election results are good for party morale, and that’s true for all parties. But there’s another barometer of morale which has not received nearly as much attention, and that’s defections from council groups.  

Every week, the excellent Thorncliffe Local Councils website lists the latest by-election results, but they also report changes of allegiance in council chambers, and that list is usually about half as long again.  

In analysing the numbers of councillors reidentifying away from the group they joined when first elected, we can see more evidence of subtle political changes taking place, particularly in areas where there aren’t many by elections.

Obviously, caution is needed, if only because the Thorncliffe site cannot go into all the machinations of personality disputes, warped egos, ideological rifts, scandals and sheer bloody mindedness manifested in every elected authority in the land.   

The reasons for defections are many and various, and probably impossible to catalogue effectively. For example, in some areas, it seems that mayors move to being Independents after their mayoral year, in the expectation that they will be standing down at the end of a glorious civic career.  

Nevertheless, in looking at the figures since May 2022, the changes of allegiance look significant.  For whatever reason, since May 2022, a net total of 100 councillors elected as Conservatives no longer identify as such.  

For Labour the figure is -64, for the Lib Dems -13 and for the Nationalists -4. The Greens have made a net increase of three; the balancing figure is an increase of 178 independents, widely defined for convenience to include Residents, Ratepayers, Unaligned, Reform, Socialists etc.  

Anecdotally, some Independents really are independent, whereas others are known sympathisers or undercover agents of established political parties. Frankly, trying to monitor subtle changes in the composition of most 'Independent' groups on most councils would be futile in the extreme, particularly as they rarely stand in parliamentary candidates.

Since May 2022, defections from the Conservatives have usually happened in ones and twos, but it’s consistent: every week more leave. Occasionally, someone returns or joins them from another political group, but the general move away from them is inexorable.  

Derbyshire seems to be a particular hot spot – six lost in Amber Valley, three in Derbyshire Dales, three more in Erewash and another four in North East Derbyshire. Although there has been a net gain of one in Plymouth, the churn there has seen six councillors join and five resign.  

Movements in Bournemouth - down six net - seem impossible to rationalise, but the six losses in Tamworth in August were simultaneous. Wakefield (-4) and South Norfolk (-3) must add to Conservative woes.

For the Labour Party, there have been some block defections, with evidence of selection/de-selection battles and general group disharmony in some councils. Stroud, where they have lost nine councillors by some reckoning, has been well-documented, but Hyndburn (-7) might be worth closer analysis.  

For the Lib Dems, three councillors elected in May 2022 in Powys have now left.  

It’s not always certain that an ex-councillor will withdraw their support from their parliamentary candidates at the next general election, but it must be a reasonable to assume that most will no longer be active participants.

Something has upset them enough to go public with a change of allegiance; being seen to support the old brand at a general election might cause some of their supporters to question their judgement or even their integrity.  

Some notes on methodology – these figures come from a rough-and-ready examination of the data available There may be some double counting (where one individual resigns from both a district and a county council group) and no particular care has been taken with the initial date of election. Some are notionally independent before publicly proclaiming their new allegiance, so it can be difficult to  time-stamp all moves precisely.

Comparisons are with the last local government elections, as presumably that would have seen a clear-out of most of the disenchanted. So, errors and omissions excepted, and do your own research, but do pay a bit of attention to political defections in local government - they may be telling us more than we realise.

Augustus Carp is the pen name of someone who has been a member of the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats since 1976.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting, thanks. I'm sure you're right that councillors changing party are a good proxy for about Conservative local networks fraying. But sadly at national elections they increasingly by-pass these anyway, to push targeted messages on social media etc, which can be very effective, even in the absence of a local council base.

Matt Pennell said...

A couple of things to note - the mass defection of Conservatives on Babergh District Council - AKA Constable Country in Suffolk - last year was a thing of beauty.

Further to Augustus' commentary about the precise loyalty of those who change allegiance - many of the newly-minted independents on Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council are regarded as crypto-Conservatives by the official opposition parties. BCP has a very febrile atmosphere and is definitely one to watch during the Local Elections this year!

I'm not a betting man thanks to my Methodist ancestry but if pressed in a sweepstake I'd predict 120 defections in the 12 months to May.

Anonymous said...

Thanks both. In response to the first post, I suppose there will never be agreement on the optimum balance between the “air war” (social media, advertising etc) and the “ground war” (leaflets, canvassing, polling day organisation etc). Whatever, the point I was making was that the ground war needs a poor bloody infantry to put in the hard graft, and I think the Conservatives are losing a number of people who might be expected to work for them if they want a ground war at the next General Election.

With regard to Matt’s prognostication, I think he might be a bit on the low side, if the current rate of defections is maintained – I think I might go as high as 140. However, I think the situation will be confused by another factor which is impossible to monitor, and that’s the number of councillors resigning in disgust as part of the candidate selection process prior to May’s elections.

If it’s acceptable to Lord Bonker’s manservant I will keep my tally running and submit an update sometime in April.

Jonathan Calder said...

Please do.

Matt Pennell said...

I'd love to see the rate of defections accelerate, I believe the Conservatives currently have 6,600 Cllrs, will that drop below 6,000 in May?