OPINION: We will learn lessons and come back stronger from local elections

Chancellor Rishi Sunak meeting shopkeeper Antonio Bellini during a visit to Ipswich earlier this week.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak meeting shopkeeper Antonio Bellini during a visit to Ipswich earlier this week. - Credit: HM TREASURY

After the great success at the local elections last May there is no doubt that last week’s results were disappointing for the local Conservatives.

We lost two dedicated local councillors who were very passionate about serving their local communities and I very much hope to see both of them back on the Borough Council at some point in future.

When you have local elections so frequently, like we do in Ipswich, it’s highly likely there will be many ups and downs. Last year was an up, this year was a down. The key thing is that we learn the lessons and come back stronger and I’m confident we will.

Last year after Labour’s disappointing results Cllr Ellesmere said they would hit back. I have no doubt that we will also.

As much as local elections should be solely about local issues, it’s clear that national-level issues have a significant influence. This was the case last year, and remains true this year too. 

Ipswich MPs

Ipswich MPs Dr Dan Poulter and Tom Hunt discuss the election during the count at the Corn Exchange. - Credit: Paul Geater

If voters want to use their vote to send a message relating to national-level issues, that is their democratic right. It’s the job of people like myself and the Government to listen to the message, try and make sense of it, and address the concerns of voters up and down the country.

Ultimately, we’re not immune to what’s happening nationally. Last May we were on average 8 points ahead in the national polls. This May we were 6 points behind. More than anything else this explains the difference when it came to the local results.

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There is no doubt that issues at Number 10, and the police issuing the Prime Minister with a fine for breaching COVID rules two days before postal votes dropped, influenced events.

However, I believe that an even bigger issue was concern about cost of living. Many Ipswich residents are extremely concerned about the rising prices and bills, a fact I made clear to the Chancellor when he visited Ipswich earlier this week (a fantastic and productive visit which has already been covered in this paper).

Ipswich count 2022

The election count in Ipswich, which produced disappointing results for the Conservatives - Credit: Paul Geater

Despite the great local work of many of our councillors I did detect a lack of enthusiasm to vote this time. They knew it wasn’t about deciding who runs the country and that it was extremely unlikely that the Council was likely to change hands.

There is a reason why Governments of the day tend not to do well in midterm local elections. Ultimately, it’s not a decision about who would do a better job running the country. It’s seen by many as a good opportunity to send the Government a message.

There were various occasions between 1997-2010 where Labour had very bad nights in midterm local elections, but it didn’t ultimately change the results of the numerous General Elections that Labour won throughout that period.

This is why the positive results achieved locally last May were so unusual. The governing party making 6 direct gains from the opposition Party in a mid-term local elections isn’t really what you’d expect - but this is what we achieved last year. This May had the feel of a more typical mid-term local election night. 

It was very bruising to so narrowly miss out on many seats. We had a great candidate in Sprites ward which is an area I spent a lot of time in.

He put everything into the campaign, and I was gutted for him that he didn’t quite make it, falling 80 votes short and triggering a partial recount. I was actually with him at the count and until the official result was actually read out, I had no idea which way it was going to go.

Stoke Park ward was even closer and there was a full recount. In the end our candidate Nadia lost by only 35 votes!

Nadia Cenci was an exceptional Borough councillor for Stoke Park and I think the loss of her experience will be felt in the area. However, she continues to serve in her role as County Councillor for Chantry.

Amongst all the disappointment, however, it is worth pointing out that the local Conservatives have continued to make progress in parts of town that have historically been strong Labour.

As disappointing as it was not to win Sprites, this is a ward that last election we were 300 votes away from winning. This time we were only under 100 away. In nearby ward of Gainsborough, we slashed the Labour majority compared to the last time the seat was fought. 

Though the seat tally was disappointing, and it was bruising to lose so many close contests, looking at the breakdown of votes across the Town, we were almost exactly where we were 4 years ago. However, 4 years ago the Government was 2 points ahead in the national polls, whereas this May we were 6 points behind.

It’s clear many Ipswich residents were disappointed with the Government and wanted to send a message. However, having knocked on huge numbers of doors I didn’t detect any particular enthusiasm for the Labour Party. Despite their calls of success, since I was elected Conservatives in Ipswich have gone from 9 to 13 councillors; hardly progress for Labour.  

And all this was before Durham Police announced that they were investigating whether Sir Keir Starmer broke lockdown rules. The self-righteous hypocrisy demonstrated by the Labour leadership on this issue really knows no bar.

I think if the Government can get on top of the cost-of-living crisis and successfully steer us through the challenging months ahead I have every belief that next May will see a better set of results for local Conservatives.

In the meantime, I will continue to knock on doors with our local team and ensure we address issues locally that matter to my constituents. The hard work continues. It never stops.

- Tom Hunt is the Conservative MP for Ipswich.