Local election returns are now in from across England and following a dismal day for the Conservative Party, one of the key messages for the Government is that it cannot afford to take rural voters for granted.
The Conservatives lost 1,063 councillors, nearly a third of the seats they were defending; they also lost control of 48 councils to be overtaken by Labour for the first time in two decades as the largest party across local government.
Labour gained 537 councillors and control of 22 councils, while the Liberal Democrats, from a lower base, experienced something of a resurgence gaining 407 councillors and control of 12 councils – leaving them with majorities in 29 councils, barely behind the Conservatives’ 33. Meanwhile the Green Party gained a record 241 councillors and overall control of Mid Suffolk Council, although its loss of leadership in Brighton prompted Labour’s new council leader to describe the administration it had led as an “unmitigated disaster”.
The Green takeover in Mid Suffolk, which had been run by Conservatives for decades most recently in a minority administration, was perhaps the governing party’s greatest shock: the BBC had previously reported housing development unsupported by community infrastructure and the conversion of agricultural land to solar farms as major local concerns. Other significantly rural losses include Amber Valley, Bracknell Forest, Dover, East Staffordshire, Erewash and Medway to Labour, and Dacorum, Horsham, South Hams, Stratford-on-Avon, West Berkshire and Windsor & Maidenhead to the Liberal Democrats.
Local elections matter. Not only do councils control many of the local services we all rely on, but in recent years councils have increasingly taken to probing at the bounds of their authority to attack aspects of the rural way of life to which tiny, but active, minorities of residents object. The press extensively covered the concerns we raised this year about certain councils’ attempts to attack livestock farming and impose veganism by stealth; others have made often failing efforts to ban trail hunting.
The results make clear that while the Conservatives strive to hold on to the ‘Red Wall’ areas won from Labour in 2019, it cannot afford to neglect the ‘Blue Wall’ of its rural hinterland. The Countryside Alliance will continue to hold politicians of all parties to account and insist that rural Britain is not left behind.