Previewing the Greater Manchester local elections

by Andrew Teale, 02 May 2018


“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

In the second of my two previews of the ordinary 3rd May local elections, I’m going to focus on my home county of Greater Manchester. All of the seats in the City of Manchester are up for election, plus a third of the seats in the other nine Manchester boroughs. Let’s see what the prospects are…


Bolton

We start alphabetically with the Greatest Town in the Known Universe, for where else could you possibly start? The depressed and decaying town centre of Bolton is combined for local government purposes with the satellite towns of Little Lever, Kearsley, Farnworth, Westhoughton, Horwich and the southern part of what was once Turton urban district. Bolton’s wards tend to be very polarised: either affluent or deprived with very little in between.

These local elections are to renew the councillors elected in 2014, a time when Labour was leading in the opinion polls. The 2014 results for each borough are shown in the maps in this article; as the Bolton map above shows, in that year Labour won 12 wards to five for the Conservatives, two for UKIP and one for the Liberal Democrats. The UKIP councillor for Hulton ward has since defected to the Conservatives and is seeking re-election under her new colours, so the Tories are defending six and UKIP one. The Liberal Democrat seat in Smithills is vacant as their outgoing councillor resigned recently: he has moved to France to take up a new job.

Other shenanigans have been going on. The Liberal Democrats have split and lost group status on the council, as their two remaining councillors have fallen out with each other. Labour have already lost two by-elections in the borough this year, Hulton ward to the Conservatives and Farnworth ward to a new localist group called Farnworth and Kearsley First. One of the Conservative councillors for Bromley Cross ward has recently retired and there will be two seats up for election in that ward this year. Overall this means that going into the election Labour have 35 out of 60 seats on the council, to 16 Conservatives plus one vacancy, 4 UKIP, 1 Lib Dem plus one vacancy, 1 Farnworth and Kearsley First and 1 ex-Lib Dem independent.

A net loss of five seats will cost Labour their majority, and while this doesn’t look on the cards the evidence of the by-elections is that Labour will be going not forwards but backwards in Bolton this year. They have two plausible target wards: Astley Bridge from the Conservatives, and Little Lever and Darcy Lever from UKIP. Astley Bridge is slowly drifting to the political left thanks to demographic change, but the Conservative majority looks safe enough for now. UKIP are, of course, in dire trouble at a national level, but your columnist is an elector in Little Lever and Darcy Lever and it’s clear from the literature coming through my door that the outgoing councillor, Paul Richardson, is not giving this one up without a fight. Don’t underestimate the Kippers here just yet. On the other hand Little Lever had a decent Lib Dem score in recent years which looks unlikely to be repeated; the regular Lib Dem candidate here has recently died and, judging from the fact that I’ve heard nothing from the party this campaign, the Lib Dem machine in my ward isn’t the same without him. Whoever can pick up the Lib Dem vote in Little Lever will be well-placed.

On the negative side of the equation for Labour, they have several wards that are clearly vulnerable. Kearsley voted 45% UKIP in 2016 and Farnworth was lost in a by-election just two months ago. The evidence of January’s by-election suggests that Hulton is no longer a plausible Labour target, and the controversial Hulton Park development also affects the marginal Westhoughton wards: the Tories should be safe in Westhoughton North while I would tip a Lib Dem gain in Westhoughton South. The two Westhoughton wards are also in the Bolton West constituency, which Labour failed to gain off the Conservatives last year. So that’s three wards which are plausible Labour losses and not all that much on the positive side for the party. Or indeed for the Conservatives, whose vote in Bolton is very inefficiently distributed. Two or three net losses won’t erode the Labour majority away this time, but if the administration can’t get their act together by 2019 this could be a council to watch next year.


Wigan

From pasties to pies, as we travel into the terra incognita past the Chequerbent Roundabout, where men eating pies toil beneath the ground to extract coal to feed their dragons with before going to the stadium to watch grown men play with funny-shaped balls while eating more pies. I jest, of course, but the way some people in Bolton talk… (I still remember the conversation I overheard in a pub to the effect that Eastleigh was just beyond Atherton.)

Anyway, we’re here in Wigan, whose borough covers a lot more than the town itself. Here are all the small pit towns on the Lancashire plain, the largest of which is Leigh, together with some posh commuter villages to the north of Wigan like Standish. It won’t surprise to learn that the borough is strongly Labour, and the party are defending 23 of the 25 seats up for election this year. The two that got away in 2014 were Lowton East, a pit village on the East Lancs Road and recent Tory hotspot; and Standish with Langtree which was held by the Standish Independents, a well-established Tory splinter group.

The opposition did rather better in Wigan in 2016, winning six wards which were split evenly between the Conservatives and independents. That gives a secure Labour majority with 65 seats to 5 Conservatives and 5 independents of various stripes. Independent challenges are never easy to spot in an ordinary election, but if the Conservatives are looking to make some headway they will be hoping for a gain from Labour in the middle-class Orrell ward. It’s got to be middle-class, they play rugby union there.


Salford

Salford is the only Greater Manchester borough to have an elected mayor, and Labour’s Paul Dennett is not due for re-election until 2020. Labour also have a secure majority in the civic centre in Swinton which these elections are not going to change: they hold 49 seats to nine for the Conservatives and two for ex-Labour independents.

In 2014 Labour won seventeen wards and the Tories the other three. The Labour councillor for Lickle Hulton ward resigned in 2016 on health grounds and Labour held the by-election. The Labour councillor for Swinton South ward left the party in a huff last year after being deselected, and now sits as an independent.

There are two wards to watch in Salford. One is the longstanding marginal ward of Walkden South, which the Conservatives are defending this year but Labour carried in 2016. The other is Kersal, the number 1 Jewish ward in England and Wales, where a perfect storm of unpopular local issues and the Labour antisemitism scandal led to a stunning Conservative gain in a by-election last March. Keep an eye out for a possible repeat.


Bury

Up the Irwell Valley we travel to Bury. This borough is a lot more than the attractive black pudding town with its World Famous Market; Bury borough covers the valley from Ramsbottom in the north to Prestwich in the south, and runs the gamut from suburbia to Manchester overspill to affluent commuter towns to, er, Radcliffe. All human life is here.

In that context it’s rather surprising that the Conservatives did so badly in 2014 in the birthplace of Robert Peel, winning only four wards – although that was an improvement on the three they had two years earlier. In that year Labour won 12 wards and the Lib Dems the other one; the Labour councillor for Radcliffe East resigned in 2017 and Labour held the by-election. The council has a majority for Labour, who hold 32 seats to 16 for the Conservatives and three Lib Dems.

The Labour antisemitism scandal is a problem for the party in Bury borough as well as in Kersal. The borough has a large Jewish population which is concentrated in the south of the area, in the three Prestwich wards (particularly Sedgley) and the posh Whitefield ward of Pilkington Park. Pilkington Park in particular is vulnerable; this is a traditionally Tory ward which was a surprise Labour gain in 2014. In Prestwich, the antisemitism scandal led to Labour losing Sedgley ward to the Conservatives in 2016 – the first time the Tories had won that ward since 1992 – while St Mary’s ward is traffic chaos at the moment thanks to the “regeneration” of Bury New Road. I grew up in St Mary’s ward and I remember when regeneration meant widening the roadway; now it presumably means widening the pavement back to where it was in the first place. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Lib Dems have their eye on St Mary’s after falling just 19 votes short of a gain in 2016, although any campaigning there will probably be tempered by the fact that Holyrood ward is not safe for them. The Conservatives were hoping for a big Brexit-related swing in Radcliffe, but that seems to have failed to materialise last June; Radcliffe North, the Tories’ strongest ward in the town by virtue of it including the affluent village of Ainsworth, looks out of reach at the moment.

In fact, the Tory performance in Bury last June was nothing short of appalling. From holding Bury North and having high hopes of gaining South, they saw both seats swing to Labour, North by almost 5% resulting in the loss of the constituency. It probably didn’t help the Tory cause in North that their MP, David Nuttall, was a card-carrying member of the I Can’t Believe It’s Not UKIP wing of the party. And in contrast to the South constituency it’s Labour who are on the offensive in Bury proper and points north. They have to defend a marginal ward from the Tories in Elton but will be hopeful of a gain in the gentrifying commuter town of Ramsbottom, and also Labour are reportedly working hard in the normally safe Conservative ward of Tottington.


Rochdale

The Pennine escarpment has been looming over us as we travel east, and it’s time to meet it. Rochdale has been a Labour borough since the mid-Coalition years after a once-substantial Lib Dem group fell apart. By 2014 that falling apart was complete and the Lib Dems were down to just one ward, North Heywood, to sixteen for Labour and three for the Conservatives. The Lib Dem councillor for North Heywood subsequently defected to Labour and is standing for re-election under his new colours, so the beautiful Gothic town hall (if you haven’t been, you really must go there) currently has 47 Labour councillors to ten Conservatives, two Lib Dems and Richard Farnell, a former Labour leader of the council who is currently suspended from the party for lying to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse.

The Lib Dems are unlikely to recover their defection loss in North Heywood, where they ran a poor third in 2015 and 2016. The wards to watch this year are Milnrow and Newhey, which was Lib Dem in those years and where the party is hoping to complete the set; and Littleborough Lakeside, a ward overlooked by Hollingworth Lake and the White House, which voted Conservative in 2015. No other changes look likely.


Oldham

We catch the tram from the Home of the Co-operative Movement to the Home of the Tubular Bandage. Oldham local elections haven’t always been more interesting than tubular bandages, but this year is likely to see some change on the council thanks to the demise of UKIP.

In 2014 Labour won 14 wards to three for the Lib Dems, two for UKIP and one for an independent. The UKIP councillor for Failsworth West subsequently fell out with the party and is standing for re-election as an independent. The independent councillor for Saddleworth North subsequently defected to Labour. The Lib Dem councillor for Shaw resigned shortly before the end of his term, and his seat is vacant. This ordinary election is combined with by-elections in Chadderton Central and Hollinwood wards, in both cases to replace Labour councillors who have recently died. That gives a Labour majority on the council with 44 seats plus two vacancies, to 8 Lib Dems plus one vacancy, two Conservatives, two independents and one UKIP.

The main contests here would appear to be in Saddleworth…

…no, not those contests. Saddleworth North (Denshaw, Delph, Diggle, Dobcross and Scouthead/Austerlands, if you’re a Whit Friday fan) just has candidates from the three main parties this time. Labour are defending this thanks to defection; but the Lib Dems won the ward in 2015 and 2016 and will be hoping for a gain. Saddleworth South (Uppermill, Greenfield, Friezland, Lydgate) is a Lib Dem defence but voted Conservative in 2015 and 2016, on the latter occasion by just 11 votes. UKIP have given up their seat in Saddleworth West and Lees (Lees and Grotton) without a fight; this was Labour in 2015 and 2016 but the Lib Dems are not out of range. Some stirring contests seem likely, in the ballot boxes as well as on the bandstands.

In Oldham proper, Waterhead ward was close between Labour and UKIP in 2016 but there is no UKIP challenge this time. That good UKIP score may been an effect of Asian politics which also affect the town-centre St Mary’s ward; that area elected an independent in 2016 but there is no independent challenge this time. Finally, Labour will be hopeful of gaining Failsworth West from the UKIP-to-independent defector.


Tameside

Oldham may be interesting this year, but the same can’t be said of Tameside whose elections are traditionally snoozefests. This agglomeration of small Pennine milltowns has 51 Labour councillors and an opposition of just six Conservatives; of its 19 wards, sixteen are safe Labour and one (Stalyvegas South) is safe Conservative.

In 2014 the Conservatives won two wards; surprisingly their second seat wasn’t the traditional marginal of Hyde Werneth, but instead was Ashton Hurst. Hurst voted Labour in 2015 and 2016 while Werneth was Tory in both those years, and those two wards again look like the only points of interest this time round.


Stockport

Now, Stockport. This is the only Greater Manchester borough which has never had a Labour majority, thanks to Conservative and then Lib Dem strength. While Labour took over the administration for the first time a couple of years ago, they run the council as a minority with 23 seats out of 63.

In 2014 the Liberal Democrats won the most wards – 9 out of 21 – despite being second in the popular vote behind Labour, who had 7 wards. The Conservatives won four and Heald Green ward, as is traditional, returned an independent associated with the local Ratepayers group.

Since then there have been some personnel changes. The Conservative councillor for Bramhall South and Woodford ward resigned in 2014 on health grounds, and the Conservatives held the by-election. The Liberal Democrat councillor for Bredbury Green and Romiley ward left the party in 2016; she is not seeking re-election. The Liberal Democrat councillor for Cheadle Hulme South ward defected to Labour in 2016; he is not seeking re-election either. The Labour councillor for Brinnington and Central ward died in 2017 and Labour held the by-election. Overall, as stated Labour are now on 23 seats to 20 for the Lib Dems, 14 for the Conservatives, 3 Heald Green Ratepayers and 3 ex-Lib Dem independents.

There’s lots of ground to cover here. First things first, the election in Edgeley and Cheadle Heath ward is OFF as the Conservative candidate has died since close of nominations. The poll in this ward has been rescheduled for 24th May and will be covered on Andrew’s Previews then. The Lib Dems look odds-on to recover the defection losses in Bredbury Green and Cheadle Hulme South, both of which are safe wards for the party. There are two Labour target wards, Manor and Offerton in eastern Stockport proper, both of which the Lib Dems are defending; Labour won Manor ward in 2016 and are within range in Offerton. Both these wards are also represented by Lib Dem councillors who have fallen out with the party and are not up for re-election this year, which suggests that the yellow campaigning machine might not be in good shape. The Labour campaign are also reportedly working hard in the safe Lib Dem ward of Cheadle Hulme North.

No fewer than five wards are Conservative-Lib Dem marginals. The Lib Dems should be confident of holding Marple North, which was Conservative in 2015 but had a large Lib Dem lead in 2016. They are also defending Marple South and High Lane (as the ward is now called), which voted Conservative in 2015 and 2016 – on the latter occasion with a majority of just 23 votes. There are difficult Tory defences in Hazel Grove and Stepping Hill, both of which voted Lib Dem two years ago, and the Liberal Democrats are also within range of a gain in Bramhall South and Woodford. That ward has three Conservative councillors and is stockbroker belt suburbia; it was one of only a handful of wards in Greater Manchester which did not vote for Andy Burnham in last year’s mayoral election. The main local issue in Bramhall is disruption caused by construction of the Manchester Airport eastern link road which, like every other infrastructure project in Greater Manchester at the moment, has gone horrifically over time and budget – see also the M60 smart motorway and the Bolton railway electrification, both of which were supposed to be finished last year and both of which will be with us for a long time yet.

Overall Labour are probably favoured to remain as the largest party on Stockport council, but the size of their lead over the Lib Dems will be interesting.


Manchester

Nine councils into our clockwise perambulation around the county, and we come to the city of Manchester. You might reasonably ask why the big city doesn’t come first, and there’s a simple answer to that: it’s not particularly or politically interesting. The Labour party have won all but one of the parliamentary and ward elections to take place within the city boundary since the Coalition was formed in May 2010; the one that gone away was the seat of former Withington MP John Leech, who gained Didsbury West ward for the Lib Dems in 2016.

This year all 96 Manchester councillors are up for re-election thanks to new ward boundaries, although the north and south of the city haven’t actually seen much boundary change and generally remain as shown in the 2014 map above. The main effect of the rewarding is to move a ward from East Manchester to the city centre, reflecting population shifts over the last decade and a half. It’s not too long ago that Manchester city centre had almost no resident population; now it has two wards all to itself, called Piccadilly and Deansgate.

Anyway, pretty much the only point of interest here is whether John Leech holds his seat or whether the Labour redwash will reassert itself.


Trafford

Let’s save the best till last, shall we? As befits some of the favoured locations of the Real Housewives of Cheshire, Trafford is the only metropolitan borough in the north of England under Conservative control; but there is speculation that this may finally be the year that the Tories’ luck runs out. The party currently control 34 seats on the council to 26 for Labour and three for the Lib Dems, so three net Tory losses will bring Trafford under no overall control.

In 2014 the Conservatives won 11 wards to 9 for Labour and 1 for the Lib Dems. The Labour councillor for Broadheath ward resigned in 2017 and Labour held the by-election. There are two vacant seats, both in Altrincham ward and both left behind by Tory former parliamentary candidates: Alex Williams (Bury South, 2005; Stretford and Urmston, 2010) is moving on to other things in his career, while Matthew Sephton (Manchester Central, 2012 by-election) is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for child pornography offences. Sephton was due for re-election this year, and the ordinary election to replace him will be combined with the by-election to replace Williams.

The main Tory-Labour battleground is, as usual, north of the Mersey in Urmston. There are three adjoining wards here, Davyhulme East (which includes the Trafford Centre), Davyhulme West and Flixton, which have full slates of Tory councillors all sitting on small majorities over Labour. Flixton ward in particular has had a long series of knife-edge results: since the Coalition was formed the Tory majorities here have been successively 281, 151, 39, 167 (on a general election turnout) and 60 votes. If the Conservatives lose all these wards, in all probability their majority will go as well.

A secondary battleground appears in Altrincham. Broadheath ward in northern Altrincham voted Conservative in 2015, but the by-election last year suggests that Labour should hold this seat. Timperley and Village wards in eastern Altrincham are the two wards which elect Liberal Democrat councillors; the Lib Dems won both of them in 2016, and this year they will be hoping to gain Timperley and defend Village from the Conservatives. The Lib Dem result in Timperley in 2016 was very impressive; on the other hand, their councillor Jane Brophy has a large personal vote. and she’s not on the ballot this year. Altrincham ward looks safe enough, but the double vacancy and scandal do mean that it could be in play if Labour do very well.

So, keep an eye on this one. If the Tory majority in Trafford falls, you’ll know from this how it happened.

Of course, all of this analysis is based on people voting. If people don’t vote, the efforts of candidates will have been wasted and I’ll have nothing to talk about. Come 3rd May I shall be casting my vote in Little Lever and Darcy Lever; if there are local elections in your area this year, please do likewise.

And once you have cast your vote, stay tuned to Britain Elects who will of course endeavour to bring you the results from the 3rd May elections as they are declared. Unfortunately your columnist will not be partaking in the fun this year: my employment comes first, so please don’t send me enquiries on election night or the following day expecting a response as you won’t get one. If you are one of the thousands of candidates at this election, may I wish you the best of luck whichever rosette you wear; if you just intend to follow the results, have an enjoyable time doing it. I’ll see you on the other side for the next edition of Andrew’s Previews, which will be on 17th May with the usual diet of local by-elections in Lancaster and Suffolk.