The 2011 local elections told a tale of three nations within England. While, as ever, the results were a patchwork of local variations, the broad pattern was perhaps clearer than usual.
In the big urban centres, Labour achieved astonishingly good results. The party has never before won every seat in Manchester, for instance, and its victory in Liverpool came with some outlandish swings against the Liberal Democrats. The Tories disappeared from most of these areas in the 1990s, and in the 2000s the Lib Dems rose and provided strong competition. At a stroke, they have been eradicated. In urban, liberal England Labour reigns supreme. The big cities received harsh treatment in the local government financial settlement, and this has been repaid by the electorate.
In the suburbs and medium sized towns which are traditionally battles between Labour and Conservative the results were more mixed, with some good Conservative defences from Labour challenge in places like Trafford, Harlow and Tamworth. The size of the swing to Labour since 2010 was unimpressive, particularly when there was not much of a Lib Dem vote to squeeze; marginal England has certainly not turned violently against the coalition.
The other section of England – rural, better-off, southern – still seems broadly comfortable with the coalition, and the Lib Dem vote perhaps surprisingly resilient, for instance in Eastbourne and Bath. There has been controlled, though real, competition between the two coalition parties in the local elections here and Labour hopes of breaking through and establishing three party politics here, let alone displacing the Lib Dems, have failed.
In terms of control of local government, Labour has made some eye-catching gains in the cities and some smaller towns, but the real shifts of control in many areas will not take place until May 2012, when the freak Conservative gains of 2008 come up for re-election. Local government remains, for another year, still more Tory than Labour.
Lewis Baston is a writer on politics, elections, history and corruption, and Research Fellow at Democratic Audit
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