Lib Dem landslide in Somerset – a sign of things to come?

South Somerset Lib Dems celebrate council seat wins

One fact shows the sheer scale of the Conservative defeat in the elections for the new Somerset County Council. The 61 Liberal Democrat councillors elected to the new unitary authority will form the largest group from that party on any elected assembly in the UK. Only the House of Lords – not of course an elected body – can muster a larger number. 

Out of the 110 seats on the new council, the Conservatives (the majority group in Somerset since 2009), hold only 36. Labour and the Greens have five councillors each, while there are also three independents. It’s a very significant shift.  

The results fit the national pattern of Lib Dem gains, particularly in the south of England, but I wanted to know whether there were any local factors driving the result. Oliver Patrick, newly elected for the Coker division, thought that there were.

“On the doorstep,” he said, “people were three or four times more likely to bring up local issues. Problems with County Highways were perhaps the biggest concern, but people also spoke about the need for local regeneration and about being ignored by the County Council”.

However, every third or fourth person also brought up ‘partygate’ and the fact that the Prime Minister could not be trusted.

Ros Wyke, leader of Mendip District Council and now county councillor for Mendip West as well, echoed these comments.

“There was a general sense” she said, “that neither Conservative MPs nor a Conservative Council were able to articulate the concerns of local people about the cost of living, lack of local transport or job opportunities. There was a sense that they were not making the case for Somerset and money was going elsewhere”. 

Theo Butt-Philip, newly elected for the City of Wells, also emphasised the lack of investment:

“Locally, people were worried about pressure on infrastructure from large amounts of development, whilst vital public services are overstretched.”

On the other hand, a councillor who didn’t want to be named emphasised a more fundamental change.

“The political world has turned on its head”, she said. “If you approached a nice house in the past, you would expect Tory inhabitants. That’s changed in rural areas. If you approach a row or estate of ex-local authority homes, in the past you would have expected to find Labour or possibly Liberal voters. Now it’s more likely to be Tory, BJ supporter, Brexit supporter. That is the biggest shift of our lifetime.”

John Harris, who writes for the Guardian, recently made the same point in an interesting twitter thread. Sam Freedman, another commentator well worth following, addresses the same issue in a recent blog. “Amazing how many Tories completely misunderstand how the realignment is happening. It’s not class-based. It’s about homeownership, educational qualifications and age.”

If this trend persists, it will have profound consequences for politics in the UK, and particularly perhaps in the south-west, where the Liberal Democrats are the main challenge to the Conservatives.

The move to a unitary authority in Somerset has been unpopular, as we have highlighted previously, but did it affect people’s votes?  Indirectly it seems it did.  All those I spoke to reported hearing concerns about the increasing remoteness of government and fears that “everything will focus on Taunton”. Theo Butt-Philip was not alone in emphasising that there was “very real anger that the county council and the Conservative government in Westminster hadn’t listened to people in Somerset.” This concern about the loss of local influence probably played to Lib Dem strengths. 

Was the result driven primarily by Conservative abstentions or by people switching their allegiance? The evidence points to the latter. In Coker, the turnout was much the same as at the previous election, but the result dramatically different.  In Mendip West the turnout fell from 47 per cent to 44 per cent, but having lost in 2017, Ros Wyke now has a majority of over 1,000.  She accepts, however, that some of the change is down to demographics. “Younger and more educated people moving into the area are more affected by the housing crisis and falling real wages, and many just wanted to get the Tories out”.

The transition to a unitary authority will not be easy. The new councillors were very much aware of the poisoned chalice represented by the near-bankrupt county council they will inherit from the outgoing Conservative administration. They are also saddled with an almost impossible timetable for implementation – a successful merger of four district councils with the county council needs to be achieved by 01 April 2023 – and the wildly optimistic assumption that it will bring about savings of some £18.5m.  Across the public and private sectors, mergers frequently cost more and achieve less than their proponents believe.

Nevertheless, there is optimism that the new unitary council can be made to work.     Delivering social care as demand rises and government grant drops will be a huge challenge, but better integration of housing and care services, plus more effective working with health, offers an opportunity. A serious approach to sustainable transport could enable progress to be made on health, the climate emergency and the cost of living, all at the same time. And as one councillor put it: “Most of all, it will stop one council saying you have to contact another council; I can’t wait for that!!”

The new Liberal Democrat administration faces an uphill task in seeking to improve services at a time of shrinking resources. The outgoing Conservatives arguably face an even steeper challenge – responding to a serious loss of support amongst the young and the better-educated, in areas they have long taken for granted.