Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How the East was lost … and how to win again

There were two tests for Labour in the East at this year’s local elections:
– Would we win control of more councils?
– Would ‘red shoots’ emerge by winning seats on councils we could not expect to control?

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In examining the results of these tests we should remember that our starting point was the very low base of 2007 council election results.

Council control

We gained control of one council – Ipswich, with five Labour gains and seven holds in the town’s 16 wards.

We came very close in Waveney (+8), finishing level with the Tories who lost control of the council.
We retained control in Stevenage (no change) and Luton (+9).

We made encouraging progress in Bedford (+5) and had significant advances in a few seats where we lost the parliamentary seat in 2005, namely Cambridge (+4), Peterborough (+3) and Welwyn Hatfield (+4).

But we made disappointing progress in Harlow (+2), Thurrock (+2), Basildon (+1) and Norwich (+2) where we had held parliamentary seats until 2010, although in all these except Basildon a repeat of these results next year would see Labour take control. However, there was no progress at all in Great Yarmouth.

‘Red Shoots’

Some ‘red shoots’ emerged on councils we have rarely or never controlled, but they were rather small and thinly spread, and we remain with very small numbers of councillors on such councils.

The one notable exception was King’s Lynn and West Norfolk where we gained nine seats. Otherwise the best that we could do was in Suffolk Coastal, Babergh and Tendring where three gains in each took our total councillors in each to 4, 3 and 9 respectively.

There were many councils where we made no gains and far too many councils where we still have no councillors at all (North Norfolk, South Norfolk, Uttlesford, Maldon, Rochford, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Huntingdonshire and East Hertfordshire)

What happened?

In most areas, our share of the vote increased from a year ago, and Labour voters seemed much keener to turn out than in 2011. But the strength of the recovery varied – often according to the level and capacity of the campaign organisation.

In several areas there was a significant movement from Liberal Democrat to Labour (as reflected in national opinion polls), most obviously in Cambridge and Luton, but in other places, such as Colchester and Watford, the Lib Dems retained more of their vote and more seats than might have been expected from those national polls. In other councils, such as North Norfolk and in parts of Hertfordshire, the effect was that the Tories benefitted from the decline in the Lib Dem vote.

The Greens made some progress both in votes, where they sometimes seemed to prosper at the expense of the Lib Dems, and number of candidates fielded. UKIP will probably be disappointed by their showing and we cannot rely on them to take significant number of Tory votes to our advantage.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these elections was the resilience of the Tory vote, almost across the board. We might have expected to benefit more from the unpopularity of Tory driven government and council cuts, especially in terms of differential turnout with some Tories at least having doubts and staying at home while anger motivated Labour voters to turn out.

However, the effect of the referendum, resulting in a turnout 5-10 per cent higher than normal for council elections, and the success of the Tories in linking themselves to the ‘No’ vote, more than negated any normally expected differential turnout in favour of opposition parties. While the consequence will have been disappointing for some defeated Labour candidates, it does mean that we in the East of England are not left with false confidence or inflated optimism as we look towards the next general election.

It is clear that to win the next election we will need to do more than simply feed off the national collapse of Liberal Democrat support. It remains a major challenge to win the seats necessary to secure a overall or working majority in the next parliament. We must win over some of the people who voted and continue to vote Tory.


While it appeared a year ago that the verdict of much of the electorate on who was to blame for the recession was uncertain and unclear, views are now very polarised. Most Tory voters blame Labour for ‘ruining the economy’ to justify their continued support for the Conservatives. Labour voters are angry about cuts and broken ConDem promises.

We still have to win the economic argument that our approach to deficit reduction was right and that ConDem policies are making things worse not better.

The policy issues, such as immigration and benefits abuse which damaged us in 2010 are still there on the doorstep. We know that we have not addressed these yet as we undergo our policy review.

However, they must be addressed and people want tough policies. This can be done through a fairness agenda. It is fair to be tough on the abuse of the immigration and benefits systems and we need fairness in access to housing, jobs and public services.


Good campaigns were fought in some council areas. We need to make sure that we bring more up to the standard of the best. We need to share and learn from best practice.


Where we won in 2010 (Luton), we became considerably stronger.

Where last year’s defeat was close, moderate or better than might have been expected, we made a comeback in most these areas.

Where we were soundly or heavily defeated last year, there was, with one or two exceptions, not much sign of recovery.



Photo: Gabrielle Ludlow

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Bob Blizzard and Lewis Baston

. Bob Blizzard is the former MP for Waveney and Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. Their report is available at


  • In North Norfolk we’ve proven that Labour is back. No longer is it a case of Lib Dems against the Tories. Yes we still have no councillors yet, but we are building ourselves up again, and one way we did this was by being the only party to put candidates in all seats. We now have to take the fight to the Tories too, but as an article on Labour List points out, we also have to ensure those Labour supporters come out to vote. From experience a lot do not see the point since 1997, and that is where we suffer.

  • Castle Point is another council with no Labour representation. We won this in the 1997 General Election at a time when we also controlled the council.

  • Although we won 9 seats in North West Norfolk we would have liked to won some more. In villages we need to find Candidates who want to win and our key members of the Community this can make a big diffrence. Former Hunstanton Mayor Richard Bird one a seat for Labour in Hunstanton which is considered to be a true Blue area. I still think Labour needs to spend time thinking about the type of policies that play well in Country areas.

  • I was a labour voter and many people i know were but we had the march the hardest hit and still new labour fail too stand up and say we are sorry for introducing an attack on the disabled and most vunerable in society letting the tories carry on what labour started,the national insurance that most of us paid into to receive invilidity-incapacity benefit and introduce a draconion cut benefit regrime backed also by tory backed news papers,and now a situation when somebody cannot work any more are being limited to one years benefit and then nothing,and some disabled being put on jobseekers allowence. Now the truth the dwp did say and many experts that fraud in disability benefits is very low about 5% but the new labour ran a campaign of lies and decieit,and now the tories are carrying on with there work,with total aggreement with new labour,labour party gave up all they beleived in privatisation,welfare,and even the people that devised the new employment support allowence are saying its not fit for purpose. So any of you reading this if you are fit and well you are lucky if you becoume ill and even though you have paid NI you may get nothing from the state,and all this started by a labour government?

  • I am delighted that we did well in other parts of the East, but we were thrilled with our results in Cambridge. After years of losing support to the LibDems, the tables were very sharply turned. In a by-election in October 2010 we removed the last remaining Conservative from Cambridge City Council. In May 2011 we gained 4 seats from the LibDems on the City Council and 1 County seat in a by-election on the same day. Three of the seats are wards where we have had no Labour Councillors for many years and if our support continues it will not take long for Labour to control the Council again.

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