An analysis of the local elections – West Sussex & Crawley

Last Thursday saw local council elections in much of England & Wales. Much has been said and written already by way of interpreting the results on a national scale. Here, I shall focus mainly on the county in which in I live, West Sussex. I hope some other bloggers will do similar analyses for their own counties. I shall look at how the 2013 election compared to when the seats last came up for election in 2009. I shall make a few comments on the performance of each notable party before looking at one parliamentary area in closer detail.

Sources and methodology

All data was drawn from the website of West Sussex County Council on Friday the 3rd of May, with the analysis being conducted over the course of the bank holiday weekend that followed. As the information was not in a friendly format for analysis, I have had to type every number into a spreadsheet (which is available if you leave a comment and include your email address – you will see room for this on the comment box, though your email address will not be made public unless you either wish it to or you put in the wrong box). Because of this, I cannot rule out the possibility of transcription error though I have made every effort to be accurate. For the sake of direct comparison I have not made comparisons for any by-elections that took place since 2009. Anyone who wishes to do so is welcome, though I doubt they will have much of an effect on the analysis.

Since one may easily look at the number of councillors at a glance, my aim here to focus on the share of the vote of each party. I will look at the turnout in each ward as well as the share of the total votes of each party and how this share has changed between 2009 and 2013. A summary of the results may be found below:

Election 1

Please note that I have not corrected for rounding errors in the percentages.

Conservatives are still the dominant force in West Sussex. Though they lost some councillors they retained overall control of the council. It has been noted by such political commentators as Nick Robinson of the BBC and John Snow of Channel 4, as well as various political correspondents for national newspapers, that parties in government often do badly in the local elections mid-way through a Parliament. This was no exception. As a share of the vote, the Conservatives lost over 10%. It seems as though most of this went to UKIP, with some traditional Labour voters returning, having voted Conservative as a protest last time round.  

Labour had a terrible time in 2009. This represents partial reparation of the damage done to them then, but with a modest 5.4% gain of the share of the vote, they don’t look likely to challenge the Conservatives any time soon. They did, however make significant gains on the Liberal Democrats, with an almost equal share of the votes, even though they are now only the 4th party in the county, thanks to the huge gains made by UKIP.

Liberal Democrats performed awfully. They had been the second party, but have now been passed by UKIP and have Labour snapping at their heels. It seems unlikely that many Lib Dem voters switched the Conservatives. Some may have gone to Labour and some to UKIP. Both seem to me to be protest votes, dissatisfied with the Lib Dems collaboration with the Conservatives in the coalition, though being unable to stand up to the most evil of the plans devised by David Cameron and his cabinet.

UKIP did very well. They won some councillors, though due to the first past the post system (something some readers will note I am not in favour of) they won a disproportionately few numbers of seats compared to their share of the vote. Much has been said about where their vote came from. Ideologically, since they sit roughly half way between the Conservatives and the BNP, it seems reasonable to assume that some votes from those who voted for those other right-wing parties. But they also seem to have gained voted from the Lib Dems, whose voters tend to have little in common with the traditional UKIP voter. But this was a time for breaking tradition. It remains the case that UKIP control no councils and have no MPs. While they had a very good election this time round, only time and future elections will tell if they are a reasonable force to be reckoned with or if this was a reactionary flash in the pan.

Greens remain a minority party, even though they do have 1 MP in the sister county of East Sussex. They made modest gains in the share of the vote but do not look likely to have a large say in the County Council any time in the foreseeable future. I would imagine that their modest gain in the share of the vote came from former Lib Dem voters, though it is difficult to be certain of this.

BNP had their vote almost obliterated. Gaining just 57 votes in the whole county, the far right extremists fielded just 1 candidate, compared to the 22 they had in 2009. Their vote seems to have transferred to UKIP. Though they were a minority here, they are no almost non-existent, which in my opinion is no bad thing.

Probably the most interesting thing about this election was that in every single ward, without exception, turnout was down on 2009. Sometimes turnout is dependent on the weather, with a rainy day discouraging people from voting. But the 2nd of May was a wonderful warm, sunny spring day. When I went to vote at about 19:40 in the early evening, the sun was hanging low in the sky and there was a pleasantly warm breeze about. So one might have had good reason to expect a high turnout. Though I admit I have done no research on, nor do I recall, what the weather was like on the day of the 2009 vote. To me then, the most striking conclusion about the county-wide vote is that the last 3 years of coalition government has put people off. Those that have voted for the Conservatives remain largely loyal, but those floating voters who favoured them last time round have tried to send a message to the party’s leadership by voting for UKIP. Their coalition partners have come off far worse, almost falling to 4th place. This is not traditional Labour country and though they gained some share, are unlikely to wrest control from the Tories any time soon.

So West Sussex remains a blue, uninteresting county. My father puts it quite aptly. “You could put a blue ribbon on a pig and it would get elected.” Indeed, given some of the MPs who have their safe seats here, one might argue that their snouts remain well and truly in the trough. But there is one area of West Sussex which is slightly more interesting, and it is to that which we turn to next.

Crawley – the only interesting seat in West Sussex

Crawley has become something of a bellwether seat. In 2010 it was won by the Conservatives, overturning the smallest majority in Parliament of 37, having been held by Labour since they won it in 1997. Prior to that, it had been Conservative seat since its creation in 1983. Before then, it was part of a combined constituency of Horsham & Crawley.

If we look solely at the local election votes that took place in Crawley, then we get a slightly different picture from the rest of the county.

Election 2

Here, the Conservatives lost the overall vote, with a bigger swing away from them and towards Labour. The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out within the town, with UKIP coming a solid third.

How local election results translate into Westminster elections is never certain, but if the direction and size of the swings are reflected in the 2015 general election then the Conservatives have much to worry about. Having not won a general election outright since 1992, Crawley is a seat they need to keep if they have any hopes of winning a majority in the House of Commons. In 2010, the Conservatives won 44.8% of the Crawley vote, with Labour coming in second with 33.3%. If the swings above were to be reproduced, then that would result in the Conservative winning just 31.1% and Labour taking the seat with 40.7% of the vote.

Even if we were to temper the swing, by making it only 60% as strong (i.e. 13.6% x 60% = 8.2%) then Labour look likely as though they would still win, albeit with a tiny majority, as they did in 2005.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, should be looking over his shoulder. He and his party will have a tough time keeping Crawley Conservative in 2015. They will have to bring back the disaffected voters by appealing to those who abandoned them for UKIP, whilst at the same time trying to maintain their loyal base and win over some floating voters who have favoured Labour. But if they try to be all things to all people, they may pull themselves apart. Labour’s policy of having no policies in advance of the general election has been copied straight from David Cameron. The gains made by the Conservatives in 2010 were more a default reaction against Labour than for anything the Tories actually stood for. Labour seem to be playing the same kind of waiting game, hoping for a win by default, though it’s a potentially risky strategy, as it didn’t even work for Cameron.

When it comes to 2015, Crawley will be a seat to watch. Ed Miliband visited the town prior to the local elections. I expect him to be back in 2 years’ time, as I expect the leaders of the other main parties also.

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