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Local Elections 2021: How Greater Manchester voted

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Photo Credit: Matt Brown/CC BY 2.0

The local elections, held on the 6th of May, were the largest set of elections the UK had ever held. Two years’ worth of elections were combined into one poll. Across the UK, there were elections for:

  • Nearly 5,000 Councillors in 143 Councils
  • 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament
  • 60 Members of the Welsh Parliament
  • 39 Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales
  • 25 Members of the London Assembly
  • 7 Metro Mayors
  • 5 directly-elected Mayors
  • 1 Member of Parliament in Hartlepool

The importance of these elections cannot be underestimated. These were the first elections since the 2019 General Election which saw Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party win an 80-seat majority, and these elections will be seen as a midterm assessment of the Prime Minister and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the Labour Party, these were the first elections with Sir Keir Starmer as their Leader. Starmer was elected on a pledge to move Labour away from the direction his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was taking the Party in.  

The results were disastrous for Labour with Starmer dramatically sacking his Deputy, Ashton-under-Lyne MP Angela Rayner, as Chair of the Labour Party and Campaign Co-ordinator. This is a decision which has caused a lot of rancour in an already divided party. Sir Keir instigated a reshuffle of his Shadow Cabinet as a result of Labour’s poor performance.  

When assessing these results, it is important to remember that the majority of the seats up for election were last contested in 2016 and 2017. In 2016 UKIP made big gains locally, which persuaded David Cameron to call the EU referendum. In 2017 the Conservatives and Labour were polling neck and neck in a two horse race.

The majority of Councils were electing a third of their Councillors with some holding full Council elections due to ward boundary changes. This year, the UKIP vote is all but non-existent with the majority of those votes going to the Conservatives, who had a very good night across the country.

The results across Greater Manchester were fairly easy to predict. Despite the Conservative surge across the North 18 months ago, this is an area where there only a few blue bricks in the remains of the Red Wall. Greater Manchester is still very much Labour country but there are a number of wards where they aren’t as comfortable as they had been before.

All over the conurbation, the Conservatives increased their share of the vote. Greater Manchester also made history with the Conservatives fielding two North Korean defectors, Jihyun Park in Bury and Timothy Cho in Tameside, as candidates making them the first North Koreans to stand for election outside of the Korean Peninsula.

Here is a breakdown of the picture across Greater Manchester:

Mayor of Greater Manchester – Labour Hold

This election was a foregone conclusion as Andy Burnham comfortably retained the Mayoralty of Greater Manchester with 67% of the vote. Burnham has become a leading figure in the Labour Party with many calling for him to replace Sir Keir Starmer as Leader after his very public standoff with the Government in November 2020 over local lockdown restrictions. 

Burnham has made no secret of his desire to have another punt at the leadership. He has previously lost twice, most notably to Jeremy Corbyn in the 2016 Labour leadership contest. Burnham left the House of Commons a year later to become Mayor. However, Andy Burnham has been at the centre of a scandal within Greater Manchester Police which saw a faulty computer system fail to report over 80,000 crimes in a year, forcing GMP to enter ‘special measures’ – the largest police force to ever be put under such measures. 

A damning report by the policing watchdog cited leadership as the main factor in GMP’s poor performance. As Mayor of Greater Manchester, Burnham is also the Police and Crime Commissioner of Greater Manchester and therefore the political leadership of the force. GMP Chief Constable Ian Hopkins resigned as a result of the report.  

The election has seen Burnham’s opposition criticise him for withholding publication of a second report until after the election which is reported to specifically place the blame on the force’s leadership and culture, however the Mayor has defended himself by stating that the incoming Chief Constable, Stephen Watson, needs time to read and assess the report. 

Burnham has also been criticised for his failed ‘Spatial Framework’ plan, which sought to fix the housing crisis in the area. But there was much public opposition to the plan as it concentrated too much on building houses on protected greenbelt land. 

The Conservative candidate Laura Evans, a local small business owner and former Councillor in Trafford, put up a good fight and held her own in the various public debates and hustings but, such is Labour’s dominance in the area, it wasn’t enough.

It should be recognised that there was a higher turnout than 2017 by almost 6% and despite the Conservatives vote share dropping by 3%, Evans picked up 9,000 more votes than Sean Anstee, the previous Conservative Mayoral candidate, which is quite an achievement in an area so dominated by Labour.

Bolton – No Overall Control

In an area where there had been a number of issues in the lead up to Polling Day, this was expected to be an interesting election. Bolton was in the national headlines during Greater Manchester’s standoff with the Government which wanted to place the area into a local lockdown. 

As the only Conservative-led Council in Greater Manchester, Cllr David Greenhalgh, Leader of Bolton Council, became a mediator in the tense negotiations. There wasn’t too much of a change with the Conservatives becoming the largest party. 

They will continue to lead the Council as they have done since 2019 which remains in No Overall Control since Labour lost the leadership. Labour picked up just one seat. 

Cllr Greenhalgh will lead negotiations for a new coalition agreement after the existing one collapsed in January following the Liberal Democrats’ shock withdrawal from the power-sharing agreement and a few Conservatives either defecting to other parties or becoming independents. Now that the Conservatives have made a decent number of gains, the next administration will bring much more political stability to the borough.

Bury – Labour Hold

Bury was one of the areas to watch with some predictions suggesting the Council would go into No Overall Control with the Conservatives becoming the largest party but those projections didn’t transpire, in part due to the success of hyper-local candidates in Radcliffe. 

Labour, despite losing some seats, retain control of the Council with a majority of three. The Council leadership has always been tight between the Conservatives and Labour with leadership of the Council being decided in 2011 by drawing straw lots when Ramsbottom was a dead heat.

The election in Bury this year has been featured in the news around the world as Conservative candidate for Moorside Jihyun Park made history by becoming the first North Korean defector to stand for election outside of the Korean Peninsula. She was contesting a very marginal ward with two seats up for grabs but Labour managed to clinch both of them.

Manchester – Labour Hold

Staying true to its roots, Manchester remains a fortress for Labour. The Green Party managed to sneak a win from Labour in Woodhouse Park in Wythenshawe, making this their first seat on the Council. Labour held all their other seats and even gained one from the Liberal Democrats, leaving them with just one Councillor. The city doesn’t have a single Conservative Councillor and from today’s trends, this fact won’t change any time soon.

Oldham – Labour Hold

One of the most predictable boroughs produced the biggest upset in the region with the shock defeat of Sean Fielding, the Leader of Oldham Council and Employment, Skills & Digital Lead for Greater Manchester Combined Authority. 

Fielding, a rising star in the Labour Party and close ally of Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, lost to Mark Wilkinson, a former police officer who stood for the new Failsworth Independent Party. Fielding had been facing criticism for his handling of a review into child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs with groups even protesting outside his home in November 2020. 

Critics argue that he and his administration are too close to the review, which found some former Labour Councillors in Oldham and neighbouring boroughs had been abusing young girls in the borough. Fielding has been replaced as Leader by his Deputy, Cllr Arooj Shah.

Rochdale – Labour Hold

This is another area of Greater Manchester which had quite a dull election night. No seats changed hands and the Council arithmetic remains exactly the same with Labour holding its very sizeable majority. The only noteworthy event from the election was the announcement that North Middleton was tied between Labour and Conservatives however it was soon realised that there had been a data entry error. 

It was a disappointing result for the Conservatives whose candidate Chris Clarkson won the seat of Heywood and Middleton from Labour at the 2019 General Election. They had wanted to consolidate their victory from 18 months ago by taking a few extra seats on the Council but Labour’s grip on the borough is too strong. 

Salford – Labour Hold

The elections in Salford differ from those in the other nine boroughs of Greater Manchester because the Council was subject to boundary changes, meaning every Councillor was up for election.

The city was also holding elections for Mayor of Salford, a position which differs from Mayor of Greater Manchester as the Mayor of Salford is an elected Leader of the Council; other Councils appoint the Group Leader of the largest party to lead the Council. Paul Dennett was re-elected as Mayor of Salford with a very handsome 59% of the vote. 

Labour bucked the national trend by picking up seats across the borough. The Conservatives narrowly missed out on a few seats by a handful of votes and lost one to the Liberal Democrats, giving them their first seat on the Council since 2008.

Stockport – No Overall Control

Stockport was a very close race. The Council has been in No Overall Control since 2011 with Labour leadership for the past five years. The Liberal Democrats become the largest party by one seat and believe it is now their turn to run the Council. 

The Conservatives made a surprise gain this year with Oliver Johnstone taking Hazel Grove from the Lib Dems.  Hazel Grove has had Conservative William Wragg as their MP since 2015. Wragg became Chairman of the influential House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee in January 2020. The Greens won their first seat on the Council in Reddish South. 

The first meeting of the Council since the election was held on the 20th May to decide the new leadership. Controversially, the Conservatives voted to keep Labour in power which has caused much animosity among the Liberal Democrats and other opposition parties in what will be a very fractious 12 months to the next election.

Tameside – Labour Hold

There was a big shock in Tameside as former Civic Mayor Leigh Drennan lost his seat in Ashton Hurst to Conservative candidate Dan Costello, the first time the Conservatives have won it since 2014. 

Costello stood as the Conservative candidate for Ashton-under-Lyne at the 2019 General Election where he slashed Angela Rayner’s majority by more than 7,000 votes. 

Labour still retain a thumping majority on the Council but have seen their vote share dramatically drop in most wards. The Conservatives were an insurgent force across the borough turning a number of Labour safe seats marginal. 

Hyde Godley has been at the centre of a planning row with the Council set to build 2,350 new houses on Godley Green, one of the area’s biggest attractions and the reason many people move to the area. 

Conservative candidate Andrea Colborne stood on a ‘Save the Greenbelt’ platform but lost to the Labour incumbent by just 52 votes. In Dukinfield Stalybridge, Labour’s Leanne Feeley limped over the finishing line after a full recount, defeating the Conservatives’ Kurt McPartland by 13 votes. The Conservatives also fell short in Audenshaw, losing by 82 votes.  

Conservative Group Leader Doreen Dickinson and her Deputy, Ruth Welsh, comfortably held on to their seats in Stalybridge South and Hyde Werneth respectively. 

Tameside made history as well as Bury with Conservative candidate Timothy Cho becoming the second North Korean defector to stand for election outside of the Korean Peninsula. Cho, a human rights activist, was standing in the Labour safe seat of Denton South. 

The results will be a rude awakening for Tameside Labour as a number of next year’s seats up for election are now in marginal wards. The borough has all-out elections in 2023 due to boundary changes which will be a big test for all parties.

Trafford – Labour Hold

Labour had a good night in Trafford gaining four seats from the Conservatives across the borough. The Conservatives won in Village ward after the seat was vacant following the death of local political veteran Ray Bowker in January 2020.

The ward was formerly represented by Laura Evans, Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester, from 2001 to 2019. Village ward was due to have a by-election but the pandemic forced it to be postponed until Election Day 2021. 

The Greens won in Altrincham meaning the ward is now represented by 3 Green Party Councillors. Former Liberal Democrat MEP Jane Brophy held the Timperley seat for her party as they stay at 3 Councillors for the borough. The Conservatives were hoping for a better set of results as they were the governing party on the Council from 2004 to 2018.

Wigan – Labour Hold

Wigan was the least interesting borough in Greater Manchester as there wasn’t a single seat that changed hands. Every seat was held by the incumbent with Labour winning 19 of the 26 seats up for election and the Conservatives successfully defending all their seats. 

Perhaps the most interesting point to note from this most uneventful of boroughs is that, despite Labour bucking the national trend by retaining so many seats, the Conservatives gained in vote share in every ward.

National Results

The map of England has turned blue pretty much everywhere except the big cities. The Conservatives won formerly solid Labour councils, such as Northumberland, Dudley and Harlow, as well as taking a large number of seats in Durham and Sunderland. For the first time in 100 years, Labour lost their majority on Durham County Council in one of the election’s biggest shocks. The Conservatives even gained an historic 20 seats in Rotherham where prior to Polling Day, they didn’t have a single Councillor. 

The jewel in the crown for the Conservatives however was the truly momentous win in the Hartlepool by-election where their candidate Jill Mortimer won the seat with 52% of the vote and a majority of 7,000. Labour held on to Hartlepool in the 2019 General Election with a majority of 3,500. Mortimer became the first Conservative MP for the town since 1964 and the first woman to serve as the town’s MP.

The Conservatives’ night got even better in the North East as Mayor of Tees Valley Ben Houchen was re-elected with a whopping 73% of the vote. Houchen was one of the first Conservative politicians elected in the Red Wall after winning the Mayoralty in 2017 and the Conservatives have since been chipping away at Labour’s vote in the region, culminating in the success of the 2019 General Election. It was expected that Houchen would be re-elected but such a huge lead is unprecedented. 

Similarly in the West Midlands Mayoral Election, Conservative incumbent Andy Street, the former Managing Director of John Lewis, was returned, with an increased majority after he won by just 1% back in 2017. The vote surprisingly went to second preference as Street just missed winning on first preference with 49% of the vote and Labour performing very well in Birmingham. Street’s Labour rival was Liam Byrne, the former Treasury Minister who, in 2010 when the Coalition Government took office, left his successor David Laws an infamous note which said: ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam’.  

Across England, the Conservatives won most of the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner which was expected as they have been presenting themselves nationally as the party of law and order but they didn’t expect to win so many, making 11 gains across the country. This means 70% of the UK’s PCCs are Conservatives. 

In a shocking development, the election for Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner is being re-run at a cost of £1 million to the taxpayer. It was revealed that the Conservative winner, Jonathon Seed, has a previous conviction for a drink-driving offence 30 years ago which he failed to disclose during the selection process. 

The only major casualties the Conservatives had were losing Cambridgeshire County Council and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council to No Overall Control, although they do still remain the largest party in both. The Conservatives also suffered big blows by losing the Mayoralties of the West of England and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough to Labour. 

One of the most underreported changes across the UK is how well the Green Party has done. Nationally, they have significantly increased their vote share and gained 88 new Councillors, and finished in third or fourth place in the majority of areas. After a last minute deal with the local Conservatives, the Greens took the leadership of Lancaster City Council from Labour, making the Council the second local authority after Brighton to be led by the Green Party. The Greens could even hold the balance of power in Scotland as the only other pro-independence party in Holyrood.

As expected, Labour held on to the Mayoralties of Greater Manchester, London and Liverpool and many of the other city-based Mayoralties including Salford, Doncaster and Bristol. The race in London was much closer than most expected with Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey taking an early lead over incumbent Sadiq Khan who has faced widespread criticism for his poor handling of the knife crime epidemic sweeping the city, as well as sending Transport for London into bankruptcy, requiring the second government bailout of his mayoralty.  

Khan was expected to walk it in the first preference vote but the final result saw him narrowly re-elected. The Conservatives will be shocked by how well Bailey did. Conservative Campaign Headquarters had essentially written off London as a Labour stronghold and just given the campaign a skeleton staff and basic funding in the final stages of the campaign. CCHQ have seemingly forgotten that their current Leader and Prime Minister was the city’s Mayor only five years ago.

Labour romped to victory across Liverpool unsurprisingly in all elections there but recent issues in the Council have seen some Councillors and former Mayor Joe Anderson arrested and charged with corruption, causing the party to significantly decrease their vote share. Interestingly, the election of Mayor of Liverpool was decided on second preference votes between Labour’s Joanne Anderson (no relation to her predecessor) and independent candidate Stephen Yip.  

Labour’s Tracy Brabin won the election for the new position of Mayor of West Yorkshire but the party faces a fresh headache as Brabin’s victory means another parliamentary by-election in the Red Wall seat of Batley & Spen, formerly held by Jo Cox who was tragically murdered in the lead up to the 2016 EU referendum. 

Labour won Batley & Spen in 2019 with a 3,500 vote majority, which is the same as Labour had in Hartlepool. The Conservatives have a very good chance at winning the seat which is in the centre of the Red Wall. This will be one to watch in the next few weeks along with the upcoming Westminster by-election in Chesham & Amersham on the 17th June following the death of their MP Dame Cheryl Gillan, former Secretary of State for Wales. This will be a close election as insurgent local Liberal Democrats and Greens could threaten the Conservatives’ dominance since the seat’s creation in 1974.

Things have changed in the devolved nations too. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party have fallen short of an outright majority which she and her party would have seen as a legitimate mandate for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Given how inevitable victory for the SNP was going to be, the campaign from the opposition parties has been tactical in working to deny Sturgeon her desired majority, thus reducing the pro-independence vote share rather than campaigning to win. 

The results of the election show that the public are split on the independence question. The majority of the vote share went to pro-union parties but the majority of seats in Holyrood have gone to the pro-independence SNP and Greens.

Wales has seen mixed fortunes for Labour with the party losing formerly safe seat Vale of Clwyd to the Conservatives but increasing their overall vote share and matching their best ever result. Mark Drakeford will continue as the First Minister of Wales for the next five years after winning a working majority in the Senedd, just missing out on an outright majority by one seat.  The Conservatives also increased their vote share in both Scotland and Wales, becoming the Official Opposition in both Parliaments.

About the author / 

Nathan Eckersley

Nathan Eckersley is the News & Features Editor of aAh! Magazine and a Politics student

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