Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Labour rampant in Birmingham

Whatever else the press may say about Thursday, from the point of view of Labour in Birmingham, it was a damn fine day - and we've not had too many of those in local elections over the past decade. I think the general view prior to May 5th was that we would do quite well - the wind is with us and the Liberal Democrat national polls are awful, but it is hard to translate national opinion polls into local results, as there are so many factors that get in the way. Before the election, I forecast that nine seats would change hands and I think that this was reasonable - at the start of the year, I wondered if it could be as few as four or five, as the cuts have yet to bite deep. I don't think anyone thought that fourteen would be on the cards - still less that we could have taken another three or four with a little more luck on the day.

Comparisons between years are interesting - 2010 was unusual in that a parliamentary election coincided with a city council election and that resulted in a higher turnout, so perhaps forms an unreasonable comparison with a 'normal' election year. Perhaps a better baseline is 2007, which is the last year that these seats were contested in the election cycle.

In 2007, Labour accrued 32% of the city-wide vote, the Liberal Democrats managed 21.5% and the Tories 27.1%. The depth to which the Liberal Democrats have sunk are revealed when you realise that Thursday saw the Liberal Democrats' support drop to just 14.7% as Labour rocketed to a vote share of 48.5% - a massive net 11.7% swing (Butler swings of 10% are rare). The Tory vote held up and actually slightly improved - rising imperceptibly to 27.3%, rises in safe seats masking drops in others. Turnout was slightly up across the city, from 35% in 2007 to 37.6% this year, with the additional numbers largely going to Labour, boosted by 14,000 voters switching allegiance from the Liberal Democrats. That's the story in a nutshell - angry Labour voters turning out and disaffected Liberal Democrats switching allegiance. This may mark the beginning of the end of a carefully-constructed Liberal Democrat electoral base and the return of two party politics. Certainly, the vote share for Labour is huge - my figures go back a decade and I have nothing similar. 132,000 people voted Labour, as compared to 81,000 in 2007, with the Tories also gaining a few voters - 74500 over their 68700 of the previous campaign, but within their typical range around the 70,000 midpoint. The Liberal Democrats reduced significantly - down from 54600 to 40100, their lowest in a decade and a long way away from their 72,000 votes in 2004 in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

Overall, the Liberals were defending ten seats and lost seven, holding the others with severely reduced majorities - one went to recount and another could have been lost with a little more luck. The Tories fared better, defending 16 and losing six, although three were retained with ultra narrow majorities - Weoley with just 12, Edgbaston by 21 and Northfield by 54 and could easily have gone the other way.

Some of the swings are truly seismic. Acocks Green (my home ward) was previously considered a safe seat with a majority of 1620 when it was last contested by the incumbent Penny Wagg, which was utterly destroyed and converted to a 941 majority for Labour's Stewart Stacey this year. The seat has been a solid Liberal Democrat ward since the 1990s, apart from a brief period when a by-election coincided with a general election in 2001 and there was a solitary Labour councillor for a year. Feeling on the ground was positive and we felt confident of running them close, with a chance of a narrow win, but it became apparent during the day on the doorstep that something was afoot, although the scale of the win surprised us. The swing here was a whopping 21.1%. Just across the way in South Yardley, we took out veteran councillor David Osborne with a 14.8% swing.

Hall Green was one of the most intriguing wards, uniquely for Birmingham, a genuine Tory/Lib Dem contest. Aware that reports from the ground said that the Liberal Democrat vote had evaporated, I assumed that some of that would slide to Labour, but it would leaving the Tories in the box seats. The reality - spotted by some other seasoned observers late on in the campaign - was that there was a key opportunity for Labour to come through the middle of this division, which they duly did to take a seat that has not been Labour's since 1945, with a massive swing of 23% to Labour. Essentially, disaffected Liberal Democrats crossed the floor en masse.

Something similar happened in Moseley and Kings Heath, one seat that always felt would shift to us with the demographics and which came across with a 14.8% swing as those soft-left Liberal Democrats realised what the party had sold them and decided that they couldn't stomach it, evicting Emily Cox - John Hemming's mistress.

Hodge Hill was a racing certainty as a Labour gain and the Liberal Democrats understood this quite early on - they captured it in 2007 as the Labour vote was split by an independent campaigner and it came home to us this year with an 18.5% swing. Selly Oak saw the student vote exact their revenge upon the Liberal Democrats as they voted Labour to overwhelm a broadly static Liberal Democrat voter base. Perry Barr was rather similar - the Liberal Democrat vote remained static, but the Labour vote jumped massively. Sheldon was a little different, as it witnessed a 12% swing, not enough to unseat the deputy leader, but sufficient to halve his majority.

Another intriguing example of a possible demographic shift came in an unusual place - the Tory fortress of Sutton Coldfield, where doughty campaigner Rob Pocock has kept the red flag flying despite a tide of Tory blue around him. Against all the odds, he wiped 1000 votes from their massive majority, cutting it to a merely substantial 746. Amazingly, the 3000 votes he accrued would have secured him a council seat in most wards in the city, but were good enough only for second place in Sutton. I'm going out on a limb here and say that Labour will have a councillor in Sutton Vesey by the end of the next electoral cycle in 2016.

Across the city, Tory councillors were removed by a rise in the Labour vote and Liberal Democrat switchers. Billesley, Quinton, Brandwood, Harborne, Kings Norton all fell to this devastating combination - that also threatened Edgbaston and Bournville. Longbridge went Labour because of improved turnout of Labour voters, who have perhaps realised the importance of voting in local elections. This is indicative of an increasingly effective Labour operation across a number of wards and constituencies and the progress in Edgbaston builds on last year's tremendous campaign to return Gisela Stuart as MP. Taking Quinton and Harborne, with Edgbaston on a knife edge is a magnificent result.

The Tories held onto Erdington with an improved vote share as vote swung away from the Liberal Democrats in both directions, but in neighbouring Kingstanding, the young Gary Sambrook continues to make the Labour incumbents nervous and achieved a remarkable 19 point improval in vote share over 2007 and a 9% swing to the Tories, despite a contest marred by questionable leaflets on both sides - not least the rather crass leaflets from Labour having a go at Gary's generous proportions and his predilection for the council tea.

As for the minor parties, the BNP failed to run candidates in the vast majority of Birmingham wards, a far cry from their peak years in the middle of the last decade, only pulling a quarter of the vote that they attracted four years ago and a mere 1.8% city-wide vote share. The Green party mustered a reasonable slate, but can only realistically hope to be the environmental conscience to trouble the main parties in this city. Their performance was comparable with previous numbers, as they mustered some 12,000 votes for a 4.5% vote share.

These are historic times - the Liberal Democrats appear to be a failing force in Birmingham politics and - even with my analytical, apolitical head switched on - I can't see a way back for them over the course of this parliament, which will encompass a complete electoral cycle, with elections to come in 2012 and 2014 before the 2015 combined local and general election. They are too tightly enmeshed with the Tories and continue to harp on that they are merely working in the national interest, bravely sacrificing their councillor base for the good of the nation. Whether that is sustained when they take a similar beating next year and the party continues to reel from the loss of the Short money (paid to opposition parliamentary groups) and the increasing loss of the tithes paid to the party by councillors remains to be seen. Just as importantly, they are losing a generation of councillors unlikely to make a comeback and are also haemorrhaging activist supporters, the lifeblood of any party. Abandoning the coalition isn't an option for them at the moment - a general election would see them wiped out as a political force for a generation or more - and defenestrating Nick Clegg seems pointless at the moment.

In the early hours of Friday, I was with a small group of councillors in the Labour Group office in the Council House in Birmingham. We were cheerfully - far too cheerfully for 5am - applying coloured stickers to a wall map showing the 40 Birmingham electoral wards to indicate the political colour of the councillors. We ran out of red, but had plenty of yellows left unused.

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