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Local elections 2019: How the national parties are trying to dodge Brexit as they head out on the campaign trail

Local elections 2019: How the national parties are trying to dodge Brexit as they head out on the campaign trail
8 min read

Politicians are getting out on the doorstep once again after weeks of Brexit chaos - and are doing their best to focus the fight on the bread-and-butter issues affecting people’s lives at home.

Bin collections, town centre developments, environmental health and housing will be among the issues thrashed out at town hall hustings ahead of the local elections in two weeks’ time.

But as voters head to the polls on 2 May, how much will the bitter national debate over Brexit be the deciding factor in their votes?

Tory peer Lord Hayward has warned that the local elections could hit the Conservatives with a “Brexit penalty” over the party's handling of the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Down on the frontlines of local campaigns, however, the two main parties will attempt to steer clear of the B-word.

Conservative Party officials told PoliticsHome that they will try to make this an election about who’s best at running local services - and how much they cost the taxpayer.

Tory councils, they argue, have a “proven record of managing people’s money wisely” - and a lower rate of council tax to match, although Labour disputes those figures.

A spokesperson said: “Council tax in Conservative councils is on average £93 less on a typical Band D home than in Labour councils and £137 less than in Liberal Democrat ones.

“And from filling potholes to recycling rubbish and cracking down on fly-tipping, Conservative councils are the best-performing in the country.”

The Tories are upping their candidates this time around to contest more than 96% of seats, a rise of 3% from the 2015 elections.


In the medieval city of Winchester, this election could be one to watch, according to think tank the Local Government Information Unit.

With a Conservative council held by one seat over the Liberal Democrats since last year, it could be a tight call if national divisions come in to play.

Winchester voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum by a near 60-40 split.

But Winchester City Council leader Caroline Horrill told PoliticsHome that when she’s out on the campaign trail, residents understand the difference between national and local issues.

Cllr Horrill said: “I’m really pleased with how it’s going we have a really good story to tell in Winchester…

“What we’re absolutely focusing on the local issues, the housing, the economy, the facilities for our residents.

“I think our residents are separating Westminster from the city council, they understand the Westminster and Brexit discussion is separate. They understand when we’re giving them a precise message about the local issues they’ve separated the two in their minds.”

The Conservative chief added: “A lot of people may not be happy with Westminster right now, but they don’t attribute that to us locally because they see what we’re doing and they’re very comfortable with that.

“So, the key question for us is will there be individuals who decide to make a comment about Westminster and have that reflected in how they vote or don’t vote on May 2. 

“I’m sure there will be some people across all parties who use that as an opportunity to make their point known.”


Over in the Labour camp, the country’s official opposition will be standing a slimmer cutting of candidates, at around 77% of the 8,374 seats up for grabs.

Labour HQ has admitted that this is “historically the most difficult” set of elections for the party because many of the contesting authorities are in the Tory strongholds in the Shires.

The national party’s Brexit position - endorsing a customs union with the EU - may also not go down well with its Leave electorate.

But after nine years of Conservative government, Labour is keen to push an anti-austerity message offering an alternative to slashed budgets that they say have been harshly felt locally.

A Labour spokesperson added: “It’s impossible to predict the size of the turnout but it’s clear that the impact of the Brexit deadlock is having an effect on people’s enthusiasm to turnout.

“On the doorstep Labour’s canvassers are reporting that our anti-cuts message, focussed on schools and police, is having some cut through."


The smaller parties are also looking to make gains at an election that could be defined by an anti-establishment mood. 

The Green Party hopes to capitalise that sentiment, with co-leader Jonathan Bartley confident the group will make record gains on 2 May.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, the Streatham councillor said the party has been investing in its local presence in the last few years, building its council base before it makes the bid for parliamentary seats.

The Greens currently have 178 councillors in power across England and Wales, and have fielded 2,595 frontrunners to bid for positions this time around.

Out of the 248 councils running elections, the party is micro-targeting seats in areas such as Brighton and Cannock Chase.  

The Green co-leader told PoliticsHome that the anti-Westminster mood is running rife - forcing him to duck some voters altogether to let local candidates make their pitch.

Recalling one incident near Manchester, Mr Bartley says: “It was very, very clear this person wanted nothing to do with anyone associated with Westminster - I’m not even an MP - so I just walked away and went out and sorted out a swing in a nearby playground that got tangled up,” he said.

“Because the local candidate who lived in the ward was connecting with the voter in a way that no one outside the local community was going to. Where there are candidates rooted in the local community, working in the local community they’re getting an awful lot of support because people do want change.”

He adds: “I’ve never seen this kind of anger on the doorsteps directed towards the political establishment there is a real mood to give the establishment a kicking or stay at home and not vote.

“The key message for us is we can bring change and we do deliver change, we’ve got a record number of councillors on a record number of councils.

“I predict both those records will be broken in May again because it’s very clear people are coming to us.”


The Liberal Democrats are also upping their game with a 5.2% increase of their candidate share since 2015. 

They will be another of the opposition parties, currently in control of seven councils, bidding to make gains from both Labour and the Conservatives.

Hotspots they’ll be fighting for include Bath, Liverpool, North Devon, North Norfolk, Vale of White Horse and York.

Properly-funded services from social care to transport, a clean, green environment and a rejection of police cuts will be the top promises of the party’s overarching campaign.

Party sources say the Lib Dems will be hoping to build on momentum at last May’s local elections, which saw the yellow rosette-wearers take control of 75 council seats and four councils, in its best set of results in 15 years.

The beleaguered Ukip is also planning to make a comeback, pressing its biggest push ever in the North compared to previous local elections.

It has candidates targeting all seats available in Bolton, Sunderland and North Tyneside, and has 160 contenders running in Greater Manchester alone, according to party officials.

Last year, the group lost 120 councillors across the country in local elections.


Some 1,700 Independents already run seats across England, with the Local Government Association’s Independent Group pointing out that some areas are already “successfully run” by such political outsiders.

Since January this year, some 20 new parties have officially registered with the Electoral Commission, with many pushing 'local first' slogans.

'Best For Middlesbrough', 'Residents for Guilford and Villages' and the 'Andover Alliance' are among those planning to take on the established parties at the locals.

Andover Alliance, a party of independents “deadly serious” about taking control away from the Tory-held Test Valley Borough Council in the market town of Andover, officially registered on 22 March as a party, and has already fielded 20 candidates to match the Conservatives’ 20 in town wards. 

The party’s deputy leader David Coole said as a group made up of mums, dads, business people and both Leavers and Remainers, the sole focus on local issues had been welcomed at the doorstep.

He told PoliticsHome: “I’m so humbled with the feedback, it’s absolutely amazing.

“Doorknocking - of the number I’ve knocked on - not one has said they’re voting Conservative, I’ve had two people say they’re refusing to vote until they get Brexit.

“There’s a lot of resentment because of the way they handled Brexit - all the national parties not just the Conservatives - and locally they are frustrated because of the continuing decline of Andover and not being listened to.

“Almost every conversation is along those lines. When I say we’re an independent party, local issues and local people they say ‘that’ll be nice’.”

He added: “I say we’re not associated with any national party, they’ve all got a few problems of their own, they say ‘oh that’s an understatement!’”

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