On Thursday, June 4th 2009, elections for the both the European Parliament as well as the English County Councils were held in the United Kingdom.
Local government elections in the United Kingdom were normally held on the first Thursday in May each year, and the 2009 round of local elections were therefore originally scheduled to take place on the 7th May 2009. However under the Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008 made on the 4th November 2008, the date was put back to co-incide with the elections for the European Parliament; a decision that was commonly regarded as being a good thing since it would help boost turnout.
The local elections
This time round the local council elections featured some thirty-four English County Councils, or to be precise, twenty-seven county councils, two existing unitary councils and five new unitary councils. The directly elected Mayors of Doncaster, Hartlepool and North Tyneside were also up for election; but there were no local elections in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, leaving the whole thing as a purely English affair.
The last time these seats were fought was back in 2005 when the Local Elections coincided with the General Election of that year. In fact the same was true both in 2001 and 1997, which meant that this was first time since 1993 that this particular round of local elections had not coincided with a general election. This was potentially significant since, generally speaking, turnout at local elections in Britain was poor, and so holding a local election at the same time as a general election increased turnout, a factor that was generally regarded as being favourable to the Labour Party. It was also the case that local elections were typically seen as an opportunity for electors to express their dissatisfaction with the incumbent Westminster government, and since the Labour Party had been in power since 1997 there had been a steady attrition of Labour influence at a local level, with the overall number of Labour controlled councils dropping from over 200 to 48, combined with a similar decline in the number of Labour councillors from 10,600 to 5,100. In addition the county councils were traditionally regarded as Conservative strongholds; indeed they already controlled twenty-three of the authorities that were up for grabs, with only four councils, those of Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, and Staffordshire remaining under Labour control.
Which was to say that these local elections did not look promising for the Labour Party. At the previous round of local elections the party had suffered its worst electoral performance for forty years, whilst its most recent opinion poll ratings were, if anything, even worse. Or as "one Labour source" told The Independent newspaper, "These will be the most difficult elections for us since 1993. They will be exceptionally challenging."
The European elections 2009
The European Parliament elections were heralded as the largest trans-national election in history seeing as how they involved a potential 375 million European citizens voting for 736 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). As far as the United Kingdom was concerned there were seventy-two members to be chosen in twelve separate regional constituencies. There were four seats available in Wales, with another six in Scotland, and three in Northern Ireland. England itself was divided into the East Midlands (with 5 seats), Eastern (7), London (8) North East (3), North West (8), South East (10), South West and Gibraltar (6), West Midlands (6) and Yorkshire and the Humber (6). The reference to 'South West and Gibraltar' being thanks to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights which granted the citizens of Gibraltar the right to vote in European elections and resulted in that territory being tacked onto the closest geographical area. As was the case in 2004, the European elections featured a party list system, with the exception of Northern Ireland where members were elected by Single Transferable Vote.
The last set of European elections held in 2004 were disappointing for both of the major British political parties, as the Conservative Party lost eight seats and the Labour Party lost six. At the time the Labour Party was suffering from the post Iraq War blues, whilst the disappointing performance of the Conservatives was explained by the advance of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which moved from three to twelve seats, being the main beneficiary of an increasingly Eurosceptic public. Overall the Conservatives polled 26.7% of the vote, with Labour on 22.6%, UKIP on 16.1%, the Liberal Democrats on 14.9%, ahead of the Green Party (6.3%) and the British National Party (BNP)(4.9%).
As far as the upcoming Euro elections were concerned, a poll of European voting intentions published in the Sunday Times on the 9th May 2009 showed the Conservatives on 36%, Labour on 25%, Liberal Democrats 20%, UKIP 7%, Green Party 4%, and BNP 4%; a result which certainly reflected the general expectation as to the likely outcome at the time.
Labour's 2004 result was regarded as being so bad that it could not possibly get any worse; the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were expected to do a good deal better, and there were good reasons to believe that support for UKIP would fall back. Whereas back in 2004 UKIP had been led by the charismatic former Labour MP and talk-show host Robert Kilroy-Silk. He had since left and founded his own party Veritas, whilst two of the party's other MEPs now stood as Independents having been thrown out of the party. Being one Ashley Mote, who was jailed for benefit fraud in September 2007, and Tom Wise who was similarly charged with fraud in April 2009 relating to the abuse of European Parliamentary expenses and the misappropriation of £40,000.
As far as the Conservative Party was concerned, David Cameron urged voters to use the 4th June as an opportunity to "vote for change" and to "give this weak, useless and spineless government a message they won't forget". The Labour Party claimed that it was the only party "on the side of hard-working families" and that it was "Gordon Brown's leadership" which would get the country through "these tough times". The Liberal Democrats wanted to work with "Britain's European allies" to create a "safer, stronger world" and a "more prosperous" nation, UKIP believed that the route to prosperity lay in the opposite direction, the Green Party promised a Green New Deal, with £45 billion of additional government spending to create a million new jobs in within a year, as the British National Party campaigned under the slogan "British jobs for British workers"; a phrase famously coined by none other than Gordon Brown himself, although as far as the BNP were concerned they made it clear that "When We Say It, We Mean It".
However the truth was that there wasn't much of a campaign. For one thing the British public had never demonstrated a great deal of interest in the workings of the European Parliament. Indeed, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, few parties thought it worthwhile to mention Europe as such and treated the whole things as if were a referendum on which party had the best national policies. And for another thing the entire political agenda came to be dominated by the Great MPs' Expenses Scandal which first exploded on the pages of the Daily Telegraph on the 8th May 2009.
Over the following weeks the drip, drip, drip of revelations continued in the Daily Telegraph as every day yet another MP found themselves held up to public scrutiny, as a result of which the polls appeared to show that a number of voters would desert both the Conservatives and Labour and transfer their vote elsewhere. Whilst the Liberal Democrats might well have congratulated themselves on maintaining their level of support, this was largely because the Telegraph hadn't yet got around to 'naming and shaming' any of their MPs. Once it had done so they too saw their support fall, as the debate focussed on which of the various 'fringe parties' would be the beneficiaries of this change in public mood, as various polls showed increased support for UKIP, the Green Party and even the dreaded BNP. However the general consensus appeared to be that that UKIP would be the main beneficiary; a somewhat ironic development given that they had one former MEP actually on trial for fraud at the time.
As far as the local county elections were concerned best indicator of the outcome would have been the electorate's voting intentions for a General Election. Here ICM poll which appeared in The Sunday Telegraph of 31st May duly delivered what the paper described as the "worst possible news for the Prime Minister", as it showed the Conservatives on 40% with only 22% supporting Labour, putting the party in third place behind the Liberal Democrats who were on 25%. According to ICM this was the "lowest ever level of support recorded for the party since the company started regular polling in 1984". The headline in The Observer was 'Labour loses out in people's revolt' as it quoted one "Tory party source" who had been studying the canvassing returns and now predicted that "Labour will be left with nothing, not a single county". Or as the headline in the Independent on Sunday read 'Labour set to suffer a total meltdown in council elections'.
A Party at war with itself
With the polls suggesting disaster for Labour on the 4th June at both a County and European level, by the weekend prior to the election there was, yet again, renewed speculation regarding Gordon Brown's future as Prime Minister. Brown duly put in an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 31st May in which he made it clear that there were no circumstances in which he would even consider resigning, and that he would fight on to the last ditch, although it was very likely that he was quite unaware that he was about to experience one of the worst weeks of his political life.
On the Monday the Daily Telegraph returned to the subject of Chancellor's Darling's expense claims. The Telegraph claimed that Alistair Darling had double claimed on his second homes allowance. Darling first denied this was the case, then admitted that it was, and duly repaid the sum of £688. All of which left Brown referring to his Chancellor in the past tense.
On the Tuesday, Jacqui Smith the Home Secretary, Tom Watson the Cabinet Office Minister, and Beverley Hughes, the Minister of State at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, all announced that they would also be leaving government. Two Labour MPs announced that they would be standing down from Parliament at the next election, whilst the Labour Party's new 'Star Chamber' decided that another three MPs were unfit to stand as Labour candidates.
On the Wednesday Brown was therefore greeted by a whole series of unhelpful newspaper headlines which were all variations on the theme of how he was "struggling" to "maintain his authority" in the face of an unprecedented wave of resignations. What was worse the normally supportive Guardian newspaper used its editorial to launch the most extraordinary and devastating critique of Brown's performance to date that ended with the fateful words, "It is time to cut him loose". Then to make matters worse still, later than day Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State Communities and Local Government, announced her resignation from the Cabinet just two hours ahead of Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, in what everyone regarded as a move calculated to cause the maximum disruption. Soon the talk was of the "deepening crisis" in Brown's government as the media was soon awash with rumours of so-called Hotmail Plot to remove him from office and The Guardian even published an alleged timetable of the plot which highlighted the 9th June as the day on which "The prime minister is forced from office".
All of which was, one might say, hardly the way in which most governments seek to present themselves to the electorate in the days prior to an election.
Here Come The Results Part One
The majority results for the council elections were expected to arrive during the day on the 5th June, as only a few councils intended to conduct the count overnight.
The first result to come through was that for Bristol City Council which arrived shortly before 3.00 am on the Friday morning. Here the Labour Party was defending ten seats and duly lost eight. In some wards its vote almost halved and in five wards Labour even came in fourth behind the Green Party. By 7.00 am that day the results for two further councils had been declared. In the new unitary Central Bedfordshire Council the Conservative Party won fifty-four of the sixty-six seats on offer whilst the Labour Party failed to win even a single seat. The other result was for the already Conservative controlled Lincolnshire County Council. Here Labour was "nearly wiped off the county council's electoral map" as it lost fifteen out of the nineteen seats it was defending. As the Labour group leader Robert Parker put it, "There's no way you can put a positive spin on that". As The Guardian put it early that morning; 'Labour suffers heavy losses in local elections - Early counts dominated by Conservatives gains'.
In the early afternoon more news arrived from the south-west as it was announced that the Conservatives had gained both Devon County Council and Somerset County Council from the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives then took control of Staffordshire County Council away from Labour. Derek Davis, one of the few remaining Labour councillors now left in that county, described the result as a "complete wipeout", in the sense that his party once ran the council with thirty-two seats but was now reduced to holding a mere three. The Conservatives also won Derbyshire, chalking up what the BBC described as a "massive scalp for the party", and took control of Lancashire County Council for the first time since 1981. It was the same story in Nottinghamshire where Labour lost twenty-four out of its thirty-six seats, as the Conservatives also took control of both Warwickshire and Wiltshire. 'Labour heads for local elections wipeout' said The Guardian during the course of the afternoon; 'Conservatives trounce Labour in the counties' said The Independent. The rest of the media followed suit.
The Conservative Party ended up in control of 30 out of the 34 authorities on offer, and won an extra 233 council seats. The Labour Party was left with nothing. It started the day with 449 council seats to defend, and lost 273 of them, an attrition rate of some 60%. For the Liberal Democrats it was the usual curate's egg. Whilst they finally won control of Bristol City Council, they lost considerable ground to the Conservatives in their traditional stronghold of the south-west. Elsewhere there were a handful of gains for the Green Party, UKIP, and various independents, whilst the British National Party succeeded in winning its first ever county council seats in England with victories in Lancashire and Leicestershire.
As far as the overall share of the vote as concerned, compared to 2005 the Liberal Democrats stayed steady on 28%, the Conservatives were up from 31% to 38%, and Labour were down from 33% to 23%. It wasn't quite as good a result for the Conservatives as it had been in 2009, but since they won almost everything they could have won, there was little for them to be disappointed about.
In the three mayoral contests, independent Stuart Drummond was elected as mayor of Hartlepool, making him the first in Britain to win a third term; at North Tyneside the Conservatives regained control from Labour, whilst the biggest surprise was at Doncaster, where the mayoral contest was won by Peter Davies of the English Democrats, following what could only be described as a complete collapse in the Labour vote.
Here Come The Results Part Two
As it was, the announcement of the local council results throughout the day on the 5th June was interspersed with further announcements regarding new ministerial appointments as Gordon Brown attempted to reshuffle his government. A task made somewhat harder than anticipated due to the resignation of James Purnell on the evening of the 4th June, and the resignation of Caroline Flint halfway through Brown's press conference on the 5th June; both of whom felt it necessary to make clear their unhappiness with Gordon Brown.
As far as the European Elections were concerned everyone had to wait until the 7th June, as counting was not supposed to begin until the rest of Europe had finished voting. Although as it happened the Dutch ignored the rules and released the partial results of their elections on the Friday, much to the annoyance of the European Commission. The British however stuck to the rules, and it wasn't until late on the Sunday evening that the results began to come through.
The first result to arrive was that for the North-East region at a quarter to ten where there were three seats up for grabs. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats each took a seat each whilst Labour topped the poll with 147,000 votes. Unfortunately the Labour share of the vote was down 9% at 25%; a particularly sharp drop especially if one recalled that the Labour share of the vote had been over 42% in 1999. It did not seem as if it would be a good night for Labour, an impression that was confirmed at half past eleven with the result for Yorkshire and the Humber. Again there was a sharp fall in the Labour vote coupled with the news that the British National Party had gained its first MEP in the European Parliament.
There was a small earthquake in Wales on Friday night. Just before midnight that Sunday there was an even larger seismic event with the extraordinary news that the Conservatives had topped the poll in Wales with 145,193 votes against 138,852 for Labour. One had to go back ninety years to 1918 to find the last time that the Labour Party failed to win the popular in Wales (and that was against the old Liberal Party), whilst it was the first time that the Conservatives had ever beaten Labour in Wales since time began. Things did not get any better for Labour with the London results which arrived an hour later or indeed in the East Midlands, announced at one o'clock. Although at least in the latter case, the Labour vote 'only' fell by 4%.
More humiliation arrived in the next half hour, with the news that Labour had been beaten into fourth place in both the South-West and South-East regions by the Green Party, and that it had even been out-polled by Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall. At the South-East count Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP of YouTube fame, celebrated his re-election by reciting his own adaptation a work by Dr. Seuss that now featured the refrain, "Gordon Brown, will you please go now". At 2.00 am it was the turn of the West Midlands where UKIP did well enough to take a seat off Labour, then a few minutes later came the result for the North-West where Labour once more did badly enough to relinquish a seat, the beneficiary this time around being the BNP.
And that was essentially that for the evening. Counting in Northern Ireland was not scheduled to begin until the Monday, and the formal declaration of the result for Scotland would have to await until the results for the Western Isles were in. Although as it was, the preliminary results for the rest of Scotland allowed The Scotsman to proclaim that 'Labour trounced by SNP in Euro election' as its headline on the Monday. When the Scottish results finally arrived during the course of the 8th June it was confirmed that the Scottish National Party had indeed 'trounced' Labour, with 29.1% of the vote against 20.8%; not that this made the slightest difference to the number of MEPs elected for either party.
The media was fairly unanimous in its judgement with headlines such as 'Labour slumps to historic defeat' (BBC News), 'Brown on the edge as BNP humiliates Labour' (Daily Telegraph), 'Labour suffers long, dark night of humiliation' (The Guardian), 'Meltdown' (The Independent), 'Labour routed at polls as BNP breakthrough' (The Times), 'Labour's poll humiliation' (Daily Mail), 'Voters abandon Labour as BNP gets EU spot' (Daily Express), and 'Crash Gordon' (The Sun). Only the Daily Mirror bucked the trend as it sought to explain 'Why Britain now needs the Labour party to unite behind Gordon Brown'.
Everyone regarded UKIP as the big winners, since they achieved second place overall and won as many seats as the Labour Party. This was despite the fact that their performance was only marginally up on their 2004 result, But then, only a few weeks previously, everyone had expected that the party would be lucky to retain half that level of support. The other winner was the British National Party with its first two MEPs; a development that was regarded as being very much to be regretted since the BNP were commonly viewed as being nothing more than a bunch of neo-Nazis in smart suits, and there was much gnashing of teeth over the thought that Britain would be sending a pair of fascists to Strasbourg.
The Green Party were also pleased to see a significant increase in their share of the vote, apart from the fact that they managed to beat Labour into fifth place in both the South-East and the South-West, although they were apparently "disappointed" not to have won any more seats. The English Democrats were also happy to see their vote double, whilst the Christian Party and Christian People's Alliance were similarly content. For the Conservative Party, their 27.7% was 1.0% up on 2004 and they had one extra seat, but this was certainly less of an advance than they might have hoped to have achieved, with the opinion polls showing their support running in the mid-thirties at one time. Still at least they maintained their position, as indeed did the Liberal Democrats who similarly obtained one more MEP although their share of the vote was down 1.2%.
The big loser was the Labour Party. Their 15.7% was the lowest share of the vote that any governing party had ever achieved in any national election, and was the worst result the Party itself had experienced since 1910. They were beaten in every European constituency except that of North-East England, came second in Wales and Scotland, and found themselves in fourth and even fifth place elsewhere. As the BBC felt obliged to put it; "Gordon Brown, your boys took one hell of a beating."
Two elections, two wipeouts. It was not one of Gordon Brown's best weekends. As Daniel Finkelstein commented during the BBC's coverage of the count, "I think this is a great personal victory for Michael Foot this evening. He has emerged as not the biggest loser in Labour's history."
- European Election: United Kingdom Result, BBC News, 14 June, 2004
- Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, Gloom in June for Gordon. Total politics, May 2009
- Andrew Grice, Labour prepares for a hammering at the ballot box. The Independent, 5 May 2009
- As it happened: Euro elections 09, BBC News, 7 June 2009
- European Election 2009: UK Results, BBC News, 8 June, 2009