Local elections are taking place on Thursday May 2nd. Campaigning has been well under way for some time. The Statements of Persons Nominated are due to be published today, giving an idea of how many candidates different parties are putting up. Most of the voting is taking place in Brexit territory. This is because no elections are being held in Scotland or London. While there is the usual complicated mix of unitary authorities, district councils, and metropolitan boroughs – some with full elections and some with a third of the seats being contested – most places in England will see voting take place.
I have spoken to ten Conservative councillors from across the country about their experiences campaigning in the current environment. They include council leaders and opposition leaders in different types of authorities. Some I spoke to before the Prime Minister’s announcement of Brexit negotiations with Jeremy Corbyn, some after it.
The first person I spoke to, in the West Midlands, said Conservatives were “disaffected”:
“We are a strongly Brexit area. While we try to fight on local issues that can feel a bit surreal given what is happening in Parliament. Conservatives are not going to switch to Labour or the Lib Dems. But a lot of Conservatives will abstain. Also, there are rumours of independents standing.”
My next interviewee was someone in the North West.
“It is tough going. We are defending seats that we won in 2015 at the same day as the General Election. So that was a good year. We are a pretty Remainish place so we have some of our supporters saying they might switch to the Lib Dems and more of them probably just won’t vote. Mind you, a Labour councillor I’m friendly with did say they were finding it heavy going as well.”
A councillor from a rural district said:
“I must emphasise that the problem is not just with Brexiteers. It is wider than that. It’s down to trust and there is very precious little of it left. There is this dismay at the incompetence and the duplicity. People coming on and saying one thing one week and then doing the opposite the next week.”
Perhaps the most damning verdict came from traditional Conservative territory in the South East:
“It is extraordinarily bad. We have seriously considered stopping canvassing for the time being in case it does more harm than good. Could we be annoying people, winding them up? Over and over again people are saying they will ‘never vote Conservative again.’ I’ve been campaigning for several years now and I have never encountered this pure rage on the doorstep before.”
One of those I spoke to since the announcement about seeking a deal with Corbyn said that had made matters even worse:
“It removes our chance to win over floating voters. They might not have a strong view on Brexit. They might not feel the Government was doing well. But the one strong message we had was that Corbyn was a disgrace and must be kept out of power. It’s much harder to put out that message when the Prime Minister is pleading with him for help.”
An opposition councillor in a large Labour-run authority said:
“What is so infuriating is that we had been working hard to make gains. Now we will be lucky not to make losses. Labour locally is in a mess. But what is happening nationally is a very significant problem. The morale of our team is very low. If they are disillusioned then how can they expect to persuade others? People say why bother voting. We end up agreeing with them.”
A Conservative councillor in a Council with a big Conservative majority warned that the old certainties had disappeared:
“We are supposed to be in a safe seat. But I don’t think there are any safe seats. CCHQ is very complacent about that. The situation is very volatile. It’s pretty dire at the moment, to be honest. But I think it could change.”
There was a relatively positive response from one councillor in the East Midlands:
“People are fair and do accept that councillors are not to blame. Often when we speak to them and they let off steam they then end up agreeing to vote for us. But they then add that they won’t vote for the Conservative MP again, who is a remainer. There is also the problem about the people we don’t manage to canvass and so don’t get a chance to try and placate.”
If voters are angry with the Conservatives, where will they turn? One councillor felt it was whoever was anti-establishment:
“I’m not sure UKIP will have many candidates, if any, in our area. The new Brexit Party doesn’t seem to be ready yet either. But we do have some Green Party candidates. I think they could do well as a protest. Odd for Brexiteers to vote Green when the Green Party is anti-Brexit. But when people are angry they sometimes won’t listen to points like that.”
Finally, I spoke to a Conservative Group opposition leader who told me that she herself was going to be standing as an independent. That was due to a local dispute rather than anything to do with the EU negotiations. But she felt that the Brexit backlash would help her chances – including with former Labour voters. Independent candidates were with the zeitgeist.
Of course with the speed that events are moving, the situation could be much better by the end of the month. Or even worse. But even if we leave on “no deal” terms next week, it is hard to think the Conservatives, under the leadership of Theresa May, will get much credit for that from the Brexiteers – let alone the Remainers. While I consciously tried to secure a range of thoughts from different areas, the response was depressingly uniform. Does that mean the Conservatives will have huge losses? Possibly not – purely because of challenges on an equivalent scale for the Labour Party. But it would be a mistake for anyone to discount the scale of disillusionment with the political process.