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Local Elections 2021, How the Tories won & Labour lost.


"The 2021 local elections results show broader trends that mean the Tories are likely to continue winning, and Labour losing".

In previous blog posts, I have argued that the voters the two main parties accumulate have changed quite drastically from traditional patterns of political competition. The Conservative Party has been winning votes from older working-class areas that voted to Leave the EU, whilst Labour has experienced a rise in support within areas that contained a more youthful highly educated population who had voted to Remain. The 2019 election, in particular, displayed this new divide quite heavily. This blog post highlights how divides witnessed in the 2019 election have continued into 2021 local elections, helping to increase the Conservative Party vote and decrease Labour’s. The 2021 local elections again show how the Labour Party’s vote continues to be squeezed, where they lose older working-class areas to the Tories, whilst simultaneously suffering losses to the Greens in younger Remain leaning areas. Therefore, like previous blog posts, this article argues this remoulding of British politics has favoured the Conservative Party at the expense of Labour, thus making it more likely the Conservatives will continue to win elections.

Method:

In order to display how this divide has continued into the 2021 local elections, this article has analysed the 120 English Borough (lower-tier) council 2021 results. This study has omitted County Council results as some boroughs within these councils voted twice on the same day, therefore duplicating results in some parts of the country. To ensure each borough’s votes are only counted once, this article only analyses lower-tier authorities’ results. Each local authority’s winning party, the change in seat numbers, change in the share of the vote and key council demographics are recorded, allowing for the following analysis:


Results:

The generational divide:

Figure 1 - The Tories struggle in areas with many young voters, Labour struggles in areas where many are retired.

Figure 1 shows the difference in the Labour and Conservative Party’s vote share within different generations. The Conservative Party’s vote share was much lower when a constituency contained a high proportion of voters under the age of 35, and especially under the age of 25. Alternatively, the Conservative Party vote share tended to be much higher in seats that contained voters over the age of 55, and especially voters who were over retirement age. In contrast, the Labour Party’s vote was much higher in boroughs containing a higher proportion of younger voters than compared to councils with a high proportion of its electorate being over the retirement age. Interestingly, this is the same pattern found with constituencies in the 2019 general election, where the Tories tended to fair better in older areas and Labour improved in areas with a greater number of younger voters. Further, in the 2019 local elections, the Conservative Party tended to make gains over Labour in older areas, with Labour performing much better in the South, suffering lower net losses to the Tories. Vitally, table 1 shows that this trend continued into the 2021 local elections. The butler swing towards the Conservative Party tended to increase as boroughs contained a greater proportion of younger voters, especially first-time voters in the 18-25 bracket. Other analysis conducted showed councils that contained more retired voters tended to produce greater net gains for the Conservatives over Labour, helping them pick up council seats in traditional Labour areas. Therefore, the effect on the two main parties vote was quite different between generations, and the consequences this had in redistributing seats towards the Conservative Party appears to have carried on from the 2019 elections into the 2021 local elections.


The qualification divide:

Tables two and three show that the Conservative Party secured most of their gains, in terms of gains in the share of the vote, within areas that had a high proportion of voters having not obtained degree-level qualifications. Labour on the other hand suffered fewer losses in areas that had a high proportion of voters having obtained degree and above qualifications. Therefore, the qualification divide found in the 2019 general election, where the Conservatives gained in areas with voters having mostly obtained low-level qualifications, appears to still be present in the 2021 elections. As a result, it can be said that British politics continued to be reshaped around such divides.

Labour performed better in areas with more higher-level (Degree+) Qualifications, the Tories comparatively gained less.

The weakening of the class divide continues:

One of the largest talking points from the 2019 general election was how working-class communities increased the Conservative Party vote share, and in some cases gave the Tories new representatives as these seats swung from Labour to the Conservatives. The 2021 elections were no different. The swing to the Conservatives was larger in areas that contained more voters working in manual occupations, such as manufacturing and construction sectors. Further, the councils where the Tories made the largest net gain over Labour, in terms of changes in seats, also tended to occur in boroughs that contained higher than average levels of manual workers. In contrast, Labour tended to lose fewer seats within areas that had a small proportion of its workforce in manual occupations. This would again indicate that changes of representation occurred in areas similar to the areas Labour lost MPs during the 2019 election.

Whilst Labour lost in areas that reflected the Red Wall seats they lost in 2019 they tended to have smaller councillor losses within areas that had a larger number of workers in high-level occupations, such as occupations designated as professional-level occupations. This again was similar to the 2019 election where Labour suffered smaller losses within areas that had higher levels of affluence and contained more high-level occupation jobs, such as in London and the South East.

Figure 3 - The Working class increased the Conservative Vote, the middle-class increased Labour's

The new geographical divide continues:

Similar geographical swings occurred in the 2021 local elections to that of the 2019 election. The North East, West Midlands and the Yorkshire region displayed some of the largest swings towards the Conservatives, with the party gaining many seats within such areas, mostly at the expense of Labour. Elsewhere, there were similar swings in the Southern parts of the country, with the South-East particularly showing a small net gain for the Conservative Party, with a few councillor gains. Focusing in more detail within the South-East, the Conservatives made gains in the share of the vote in places like Hastings (a Leave-voting, older town that suffers from poor attainment and contains more manual workers). Oppositely, Labour gained in Surrey, which tended to reflect a more Remain, younger, middle-class, highly educated demographic. This indicates when looking beyond regional averages the new divide is still very much present within English politics.

Red Wall:

Moving past regional averages and focusing on Labour’s traditional Red Wall areas, this new geographical divides becomes even more pronounced. Localities such as Rotherham, Amber Valley Hartlepool, Barnsley, Burnley, Warrington, Wolverhampton, Hynburn, Doncaster, Chorley and the Tyneside (Newcastle and Sunderland) areas all showed very large swings towards the Conservatives, again mostly at the expense of Labour. Consequently, this again would suggest that Labour’s loss of support within certain communities has not stopped with the 2019 election.

The Leave and Remain divide continues?

Figure 4 - Past support for Brexit parties and Con/Lab share of the vote, 2021 LE

So far, the patterns displayed in this blog post have reflected the Brexit divide that was displayed during the 2016 EU referendum. On further analysis, the areas that increased Conservative support probably voted to leave the EU, whilst Labour on the other hand appear to have performed better in areas that probably voted to Remain. Figure four demonstrates this by showing how councils that had once returned higher than average levels of UKIP support in the local 2014 local elections tended to also display higher vote shares for the Conservative Party in the 2021 local elections. Alternatively, councils, where Labour received higher shares of the vote, tended to have historically displayed lower levels of support for Brexit supporting parties. Further to this, table eight shows that councils, where the Conservatives gained the more new representatives, tended to reside with parliamentary constituencies that voted to leave the EU, with Labour suffering fewer losses in areas that voted to heavily Remain. This all indicates the Leave and Remain divide that impacted the two main parties’ performance in the 2019 election also similarly impacted the 2021 elections.

The Greens make Labour's problems tougher

The Greens posed a problem for Labour on the other side of the political divide. The Greens appear to gain votes and seats in areas with a greater proportion of young voters who had obtained higher-level, A-level and above, qualifications. Moreover, the Greens gained from Labour in areas that tended to have fewer voters residing in manual occupations. Therefore, while Labour was losing to the Tories in areas with older, lower-qualified working-class voters they were also losing support in boroughs with the opposite demographics. This would suggest that Labour was being squeezed from both sides of the new political divide, presenting a very difficult electoral problem for Labour.

Moreover, the Greens made larger gains in more affluent areas, such as areas with higher average incomes, higher house prices and lower levels of deprivation. Therefore, whilst Labour struggled to hold onto areas they historically have has gained strong bases from, deprived working-class communities, they were also finding it harder to make large gains in areas they have been performing better in, such as more affluent middle-class areas. The Green and the Conservative Party again can be said to be squeezing Labour across a range of demographics, making devising a successful electoral strategy almost impossible for Labour.

In summary, the Greens tended to make most of their gains in seats that reflected the profile of a Remain-voting constituency. This would indicate Labour was squeezed according to the Remain/Leave divide, which table 12 confirms as the Greens tended to make more gains in areas that had tended to show average, or little support for Brexit parties. Moreover, the Greens made most of their seat gains within council wards that resided within constituencies that predominately voted to Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. Crucially, indicating Labour was squeezed mostly by the Tories in Leave constituencies, whilst Labour was mostly squeezed by the Greens in Remain areas, with the Lib-Dems also squeezing Labour in specific Remain areas. This again highlights the new political divide does not favour Labour and presents them with a huge strategic nightmare for future elections.


In conclusion:

Overall, the 2021 English borough council election results show how the Brexit divide displayed in the 2019 general election has very much continued. The Conservatives gained their biggest swings over Labour in older, working-class, lesser qualified Leave localities. Alternatively, the Greens tended to perform better, often at the expense of Labour, in younger, highly educated, middle-class Remain-voting areas. The geographical divide found in the 2019 election was mostly carried into the 2021 elections as well. The Conservatives gained significantly in the North, with Labour not performing as badly within the South East as compared to elsewhere. This continued electoral change and squeezing of Labour’s vote does appear to benefit the Conservative party, thus indicating the Tories will continue to find it easier to win elections, with Labour finding it harder as it struggles to develop effective strategies in this tough new political environment.

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