Reviewing the 2018 Greater Manchester local elections

by Andrew Teale, 06 May 2018


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

Last week I previewed the local elections in Greater Manchester. As there are no local by-elections this week for me to preview, let’s instead see how those predictions stacked up to reality…


Bolton

Well, I was right to start with the Greatest Town in the Known Universe, which almost turned into the shock of this year’s electoral cycle. At the start of this year Bolton Labour had 37 out of 60 councillors and an overall majority of 14: they lost a seat to the Conservatives at a by-election in January, lost a seat to Farnworth and Kearsley First at a by-election in March, and lost five more seats in last week’s local elections. Only a gain from UKIP in my own Little Lever and Darcy Lever saved the Labour majority – and the result there was a three-way marginal, 37.5% for Labour to 30% for the Conservatives and 28% for the outgoing UKIP councillor.

What explains these losses? Well, the main point to bring away is that the Labour administration is unpopular. Very unpopular. As I’ve been banging on about in this column for several years, the town centre is part-empty, depressed, decaying, embarrassing. Your columnist has recently started a new job in Sale, and the difference between Sale and Bolton town centres – from the quality of the shops right down to the way people dress – is stark. Bolton town centre simply has not kept pace with the times or with its neighbours, and when the borough council recently presented a masterplan for improving it the general reaction from my friends was “how badly are they going to screw this up”? We’ve heard it all before, and all we have to show for those previous ambitions is demolished and unfilled spaces around the bottom end of Bradshawgate – a nice welcome for all the people travelling in from the south by road – and half the large shop units in the town centre lying empty. Alright, there’s a nice new bus station, but it’s smaller than the previous one and who in their right mind is going to pay bus fares they can’t afford to come to a town centre that’s not worth visiting? And that’s before I get onto the scandals: I’ve mentioned the Asons Solicitors case in this column previously, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What about the Section 106 money for Farnworth, the Albert Halls redevelopment, the Smithills Coaching House affair? That last one alone probably should have brought to an ignominious end the political career of Cliff Morris, then leader of the council, but instead he was allowed to continue until retiring of his own accord at the end of last year. Morris may be gone, but the stench surrounding the Bolton Labour administration he led has yet to dissipate.

The swings in this Bolton election were wild, but it’s clear from the detail that Labour were caught in a pincer movement with an awful lot of anti-Labour tactical voting. Different parties gained in different wards.

I’ll start in the south of the borough in the towns of Farnworth and Kearsley. Labour are clearly in serious trouble here with the emergence of the localist party Farnworth and Kearsley First, which showed promise by winning the Farnworth by-election in March. I had suspected that Farnworth was possibly not the strongest ward for FKF and tipped gains for them in both Farnworth and Kearsley wards. Those gains came through and weren’t particularly close: FKF also performed well in the other ward they contested, Harper Green, but were stymied by the fact that only half of that ward is actually in Farnworth.

In Little Lever and the white working-class wards of eastern Bolton it was the Conservatives who gained. This fits into the national trend (London, you don’t count) of Brexit-related Tory gains at UKIP expense. Breightmet, which the Conservatives gained, is a council estate ward with a bad reputation, although I have to say I’ve never felt unsafe there. The Tories also surged into second place in Little Lever, while improving their vote in the safe Labour ward of Tonge with the Haulgh. Breightmet (first syllable rhymes with “freight”) and Tonge with the Haulgh (pronounced “Tongue with the Hoff”, make up your own jokes) are the sort of wards where the Tories need to perform well in order to gain the polarised Bolton North East constituency from Labour, and last week the Tories carried that constituency by 41% to 39%.

That Labour score of 39% was not helped by a collapse in Tory-held Astley Bridge, which I had tipped as a possible target for the party. Instead Labour surprisingly fell into a poor third with many of their voters going to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems hadn’t taken the ward seriously before – three years ago they crawled just over 4% here – but now find themselves just six points behind the Conservatives. A full-on “winning here” assault can be expected for the 2019 Astley Bridge election – possibly to the chagrin of my sister, who is an elector in this ward and to put it mildly was not impressed with the Lib Dem candidate.

The west of the borough saw big gains in favour of whichever of the Tories and Lib Dems were best placed to beat Labour. Development issues are to the fore here, most controversially Peel Holdings’ plans for Hulton Park, which the council gave planning permission for just before the election. There’s also the redevelopment of the Horwich Loco Works site in Horwich and Blackrod ward, a project which hasn’t attracted too much opposition from the Conservatives but still clearly annoyed some Labour voters. Labour lost two of the three wards they were defending in this area: Westhoughton South where they were annihilated by the Lib Dems, and Horwich and Blackrod to the Conservatives. In the one Labour win in the constituency, Horwich North East, the party held off a Lib Dem resurgence by just 57 votes in the closest result of this year’s Bolton election. The bad news for Labour doesn’t end there: they failed to gain Hulton, were third behind the Lib Dems in their target ward of Westhoughton North, and (outside the borough, but in the Bolton West constituency) lost Atherton to an independent candidate. Again, Bolton West is a ward the Tories carried last week, with 34% to 30% for Labour and 26% for the Lib Dems.

So, what of the future? Labour have a majority of two on the new council, with 31 seats to 19 for the Conservatives, 3 for the Lib Dems who can also probably count on the vote of an ex-Lib Dem independent, and 3 each for UKIP, and Farnworth and Kearsley First. One net loss for Labour in 2019, or any by-election loss before then, and their majority is gone – and next year they are defending Breightmet, Farnworth, Horwich and Blackrod, Hulton, Kearsley and Westhoughton South, all of which voted for other parties last week. It has to be a racing certainty that the headlines on the morning of 3rd May 2019 will include “LABOUR LOSE BOLTON”. You read it here first. And that is the political legacy of one man – Cliff Morris.


Wigan

Wigan was the other Greater Manchester borough which ensured a net Labour loss in councillors across the county. In this case there was a continuation of trends which had been apparent in 2016, when independent candidates and the Conservatives performed well. I’ve already mentioned Atherton, and independents also picked up Hindley Green and Bryn – campaigning for an aborted by-election in Bryn earlier this year, which was to have been an independent defence until the High Court called the poll off at the eleventh hour, may have had an effect there. Labour were also close to losing Hindley to an independent.

As I suggested in the preview the Conservatives gained Orrell, and also took Standish with Langtree from a Tory splinter group. That was an interesting result: the Wigan Independent Conservatives finished third, and Labour were only 15 votes behind the official Conservatives. The Wigan Independent Conservatives did however retain group status on the council by gaining Shevington with Lower Ground from Labour.

Overall Labour lost five seats to put them on 60 seats out of 75. The Conservatives now have seven councillors, independents have six and the Wigan Independent Conservatives have two.


Salford

I said in the preview that there were two wards to watch in Salford, Walkden South and Kersal. Walkden South did indeed turn into a Labour gain, and new Labour councillor Laura Edwards becomes, at 19, the youngest ever Labour councillor in the city. The headlines were however grabbed by the Tory gain of Kersal, the number 1 Jewish ward in the country. And the Conservative performance there was indeed impressive: 59.03% of the vote was their strongest result in Salford, even better than the traditional stronghold of Worsley. Those of you who read my preview of the 2017 by-election in Kersal (pages 66 to 68 of the Andrew’s Previews 2017 book, if you have it) will know that there’s a bit more going on there than just the Labour antisemitism stuff, although that certainly won’t have helped. There were strong independent challenges in the rather isolated towns of Irlam and Cadishead, although Labour held both those wards.

Labour actually made a net gain here, picking up Swinton South from a deselected former Labour councillor. They now control 50 of the 60 seats on the council, plus the mayoralty, to 9 Conservatives and 1 ex-Labour independent.


Bury

Bury is a borough with something for everyone, and that was the case in this election too. I mentioned the Labour antisemitism scandal in the last section, but that played out rather differently outside the Salford boundary. Labour held their own in Prestwich, coming out on the right side of another photofinish with the Lib Dems in St Mary’s ward and impressively holding Sedgley, which had been lost to the Conservatives two years ago. The local Conservatives are blaming candidate issues for that one. They did however comfortably regain the Whitefield ward of Pilkington Park from Labour; this is a strongly Jewish ward as well, but arguably should never have been Labour in the first place. I doubt that Bury’s ruling Labour group are too worried about that loss.

What should probably concern them is the Conservative gain in Radcliffe North. This is a polarised ward where your columnist lived for many years; a third of it is the affluent and strongly Conservative village of Ainsworth, with the other two-thirds being council estates off Turks Road in north-western Radcliffe. The council’s main contribution to Radcliffe in the last few years has been to, er, demolish the civic centre and swimming baths and close the town’s two secondary schools; the civic centre site is being redeveloped for housing, while the swimming baths has been replaced by a large open space which has proved a tempting target for travellers. The Tories can’t win Radcliffe North ward without a good performance on Turks Road, and their gain here feeds into the Brexit-related anti-council attitude which we saw just over the border in neighbouring wards of Bolton. Bury council had better get on with those plans for a new civic-cum-leisure centre in Radcliffe pronto.

As I suggested Labour performed better in the North constituency, holding Elton and gaining Ramsbottom from the Conservatives to limit their net losses to one. Those two wards look like promising Labour targets for the 2019 election. Labour now hold 31 out of 51 seats on the council, to 17 Conservatives and three Lib Dems.


Rochdale

Rochdale panned out very much as expected. Labour confirmed their defection gain from the Lib Dems in North Heywood, but lost Milnrow and Newhey to the party in the only change on the night. The closest result this year actually came in Castleton, where Labour held the Conservatives off by 41 votes; the Tories also now look within range of winning seats again in South Middleton, a ward which includes the relatively posh enclave of Alkrington. The Tories will however be concerned by their failure to make headway in Littleborough Lakeside, which they are defending next year.

Overall Labour now have 46 seats on the council to ten Conservatives, three Lib Dems and an ex-Labour independent.


Oldham

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In Oldham the story of the night belonged to the Saddleworth Conservatives, who completed their clean sweep in Saddleworth South (gaining it from the Lib Dems) and gained Saddleworth North from Labour. That’s the first time the Conservatives have ever won Saddleworth North ward, which was created in 2004 and traditionally votes Lib Dem. The party also did well in the Labour ward of Royton North which could be a promising target for the future. Labour did however make a net gain by picking up the two wards which voted UKIP four years ago.

That increases the Labour majority in Oldham: they now hold 47 seats to eight Lib Dems, four Conservatives and an independent.


Tameside

In Tameside borough the two wards with split representation resolved themselves: Labour gained Ashton Hurst from the Conservatives but lost Hyde Werneth in return. The council remains at 51 Labour and six Conservatives. There were some good scores for localist parties in Mossley and Stalybridge which may be worth keeping an eye on for the future.


Stockport

Stockport council remains hung with Labour as the largest party and likely to continue their minority administration. Labour pulled off the closest result of the night in Greater Manchester, gaining the safe Lib Dem ward of Cheadle Hulme North by a majority of just two votes. Labour also easily gained Manor from the Lib Dems, but Offerton was a surprisingly easy Lib Dem hold. The Lib Dems will be happy with that: although Offerton is Stockport proper it’s in the Hazel Grove constituency, which the Lib Dems would like back at some point.

Hazel Grove ward provided a Lib Dem gain from the Conservatives. The other four Tory-Lib Dem marginals were holds, and Bramhall South and Woodford now looks safe Conservative again. The Lib Dems comfortably regained their defection losses in Bredbury Green and Cheadle Hulme South to finish with a net gain of one councillor, the same gain as Labour.

Labour remain on 23 seats out of 63 for now, but that is likely to be boosted to 24 when the Edgeley and Cheadle Heath ward polls on 24th May. That election was postponed after the Tory candidate died during the campaign. The Lib Dems are on 21, the Tories have 14, the Heald Green Ratepayers have three and there are two ex-Lib Dem independents.

Next year is likely to be all about the Lib Dem-Tory marginals as none of the seven wards Labour are defending look in any danger. The Lib Dems will be hoping to hold their own and gain Bredbury Green, Hazel Grove and the two Marple wards from the Conservatives; if they achieve all that they will become the largest party on the council.


Manchester

As predicted the only point of interest in Manchester, despite all 96 councillors being up for election, was in Didsbury West ward. Former Lib Dem MP John Leech was successfully re-elected to the council and got a running-mate in; Labour won one seat in that ward, which the Lib Dems will have their eye on gaining next year.

The new city council has 94 Labour councillors and two Lib Dems.


Trafford

We finish this Greater Manchester review with the undisputed bright spot for Labour, the borough of Trafford. This was the one which grabbed the headlines with the loss of the only Tory metropolitan borough in the north of England, ending fifteen years of Conservative majority rule. In fact it was worse than that: the party made a net loss of five seats and are no longer even the largest party on the council.

As can be seen Labour swept all the wards north of the Mersey, gaining the marginal seats of Davyhulme East, Davyhulme West and Flixton to eliminate the Conservative majority. The surprises came in the Cheshire half of the borough. The Green Party won their first ever seats on Trafford council, gaining both seats up for election in the scandal-hit Altrincham ward. Even more surprising was the good Labour performance in Sale: they gained Brooklands ward for the first time ever, and were close to winning Ashton upon Mersey. Brooklands ward was visited by Theresa May during the campaign: that went well. The one bright spot for the Tories was that they gained Village ward from the Lib Dems.

Labour now are the largest party on Trafford council with 30 out of 63 seats; the Conservatives are on 29 with the Greens and Lib Dems on two seats each and holding the balance of power. Labour look favourites to take over the council leadership, and if current trends continue should gain a majority next year: they need two net gains for a council majority, and in 2019 the Conservatives will be defending five wards which Labour won this year.


So, the 10,000-piece jigsaw that is the British local electoral map has been redrawn again. Some misshapen pieces have been taken away and recut to size. Some pieces have been repainted in a completely new colour, others have changed hue in more subtle ways. Although there are slightly fewer individual red pieces in the Greater Manchester part of the jigsaw, overall Labour have increased their dominance of the county both at local and regional level: the loss of Trafford is likely to remove the only Conservative vote on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which is made up of the mayor and the ten council leaders.

At this point in time, the most likely outcome of the next local elections in 2019 is a Labour gain in Trafford but loss in Bolton – but there’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge before then. Over the next twelve months there will be many more opinion polls and no doubt plenty of local by-elections to analyse, as we psephological observers look for straws in the electoral wind to try and understand that great unknown – the thoughts of the Great British Public. So strap yourselves in and hold on tight for what’s likely to be another bumpy political year – and stay tuned to Britain Elects as we bring you all the electoral ripples, eddies and burbles as they happen.

Andrew Teale


LE2018: the results

Beam me up, Scotty!