Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Red Wall Continues to Crumble?

In 1919 the British Labour Party won control of Durham County Council in the heart of the coal-producing Northeast, the first such victory at that level of local government (directly elected county councils have existed since 1888). Following three years of minority control from 1922 to 1925, Labour recovered full control of the county council, a state of affairs that prevailed until May 6, 2021 when the party lost twenty seats and slumped to 37.7 percent of the popular vote. American readers will doubtless be put in mind of the same West Virginia that backed Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 but gave two-thirds of its votes to Donald Trump in 2020. The fortunes of the white working class and the political parties that once championed their interests seem increasingly to have diverged, economically as well as culturally, even if the political beneficiaries of that shift sometimes seem unlikely inheritors of the populist mantle.



Votes in 2021

Wards contested in 2021

Seats won in 2021

Change in seats 2017-2021


48,146 (37.7%)





34,621 (27.1%)




Liberal Democrat

15,442 (12.1%)





3,418 (2.7%)




Derwent Independent

4,176 (3.3%)




Northeast Party

2,198 (1.7%)





19,692 (15.4%)





As a local resident (born within sound of cathedral bells half a century ago) it has been fascinating to witness the culmination of a process that began with the region’s sweeping endorsement of Brexit in 2016, continued with the loss of three long-time Labour seats in County Durham, including the Sedgefield constituency of former Prime Minister Tony Blair (like me an alumnus of Durham Cathedral’s Chorister School) in 2019, and now has even deprived Labour of power in its ancestral heartland.   

Members of the county council are elected from sixty-three wards, each of which return between one and three councillors. Electors in two-seat and three-seat wards cast as many votes as there are seats allocated, meaning that the party that secures the most votes may not win all the seats. I have attempted to calculate levels of popular support by combining the vote for all candidates from a particular party and dividing this by the number of seats allocated to that ward. Only the Labour Party ran enough candidates to fill every seat on the council, however, and I was obliged to treat “independent” as a generic term, even though the majority of such candidates ran on their individual merits. The vote totals are at best an approximation.

Arguably the most remarkable feature of the local election was the success of the Conservative Party, who secured almost a fifth of the seats and more than a quarter of the popular vote. This is a region in which the decimation of the mining industry in the Thatcherite Eighties has cast a long shadow and Conservatism has struggled to articulate a vision that can appeal to the Geordie heartlands. “Brexit and Boris” seems – thus far – to have altered the rules of the game, though whether the latter will succeed in creating a “Joseph Chamberlain moment” remains to be seen. The local party ran candidates in every ward except Tow Law (where none of the national parties stood) and won pluralities in thirteen wards. Apart from a solitary win in Chester-le-Street, however, all the Conservative councillors were returned for wards in the three parliamentary constituencies in the south and west (Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield) that fell to them in 2019. That they took eleven seats directly from Labour is no small achievement, but also reflects the distinctive character of western Weardale, as compared with the eastern ex-colliery communities of Easington and North Durham. Had the party’s share of seats reflected their share of the vote, there would now be thirty-four Conservatives on the county council rather than twenty-four.   

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats adopted a more targeted strategy, contesting only thirty-nine wards. An absence of candidates was particularly noticeable in Easington, where they left nine of the eleven wards uncontested. Their base remains in the City of Durham (home to the university) and the communities around it, where they hold ten seats (over half their caucus). The two seats lost by Labour in the City of Durham constituency in 2021 actually went to an independent candidate and to a Green, who won the most votes in the town of Brandon and is that party’s only representative on the county council. The Liberal Democrats also took two seats from Labour in the town of Aycliffe and one seat in the old steel town of Consett, where they now hold two of Consett’s three seats.

The third component of the anti-Labour bloc is comprised of independents, either affiliated with minor parties or running on their own merits. There were twenty-nine such councillors elected in 2017 and thirty-one in 2021. Independent candidates topped the poll in ten wards in 2021 and won almost a quarter of the seats on the county council, despite winning only a fifth of the popular vote. Nevertheless, the Independents can plausibly argue that they have shown strength across the county, particularly in Easington and North Durham, where neither Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats have much of a foothold.

Finally, of course, there is the Labour Party itself. By no means a spent force, the party continues to dominate in Easington (fifteen of twenty-one seats) and has a narrow majority in North Durham (twelve out of twenty-two seats). The real damage was inflicted in the west of the county where the Conservatives gained ten seats from Labour. That alone would have left Labour with exactly half the seats on the county council, but further losses to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents drove it to its historic defeat. Of course, this is no guarantee that the former opposition can unite behind a common agenda. It will be much easier for Labour to persuade eleven independents to commit to confidence-and-supply than for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats not only to agree upon a common programme, but to persuade three-quarters of the independent councillors to go along with it. It should still make for some interesting council debates.


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