I have paid a lot of attention to the political situation in Stockport over the last couple of years. I used to be involved with the Labour Party in Stockport back in the 1980's when it was a Tory stronghold just beginning to be undermined by the nascent Liberal/SDP Alliance which would become the all-conquering (in Stockport) Liberal Democrats. Labour were the perennial also-rans, safe enough in a few wards but under threat in others. I can remember canvassing in Edgeley (now safely Labour) and, with other canvassers from North Reddish, confidently predicting that the Liberals would take it with around 45% of the vote. We got it right. Things were not so great for Labour back then. Over the past years though, it has been the Conservatives suffering as well, falling to a low third place in seats on the Council and failing to hold any of the Westminster constituencies.
It was easy for the Liberals/Liberal Democrats - they could be all things to all people: a centre-left alternative to Labour in wards like Cale Green and a centre-right alternative to Conservatives in the Cheadle and Bramhall seats. You have to admire their chutzpah; mopping up the Labour votes in Bredbury, Cheadle Hulme, etc. to 'keep the Tories out', whilst simultaneously appealing to Conservatives in other wards to 'stop Labour'.
As with all such tactics, there comes a payback time and that appears to be the beginning of the case in the Stockport Council elections of May 2011.
This has been brewing for sometime. In 2009, a by-election in North Reddish, where the Liberal Democrats had surprisingly lured the popular long-term Labour councillor Ann Graham to defect to them, was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats with them coming fourth behind UKIP. At the 2008 election, the Liberal Democrats had reached a peak at the height of the Labour Government's unpopularity and gained the once seemingly unconquerable Labour bastion of Brinnington and Central, with 46.9% of the vote, after running Labour fairly close in 2007. So shocking was this that Councillor Colin McAllister, long-time Labour councillor for Brinnington, eventually defected to the Liberal Democrats in early 2010 (as he was to discover, in the words of Julia Robert's character in the film 'Pretty Woman', this was a big mistake - Huge!). Councillor McAllister's defection was pretty much the last of the good news for the Liberal Democrats as the General Election of 2010 arrived.
The Council elections held on the same day produced apparently good results for the Liberal Democrats, with them only losing out by the luck of the draw to the Conservatives in Bramhall North after the first dead-heat in living memory. They gained Bredbury and Romiley from the Conservatives and held everywhere else - except the recently acquired seat of Councillor McAllister in Brinnington and Central, where Labour retook the seat with the return of long-term Councillor, Maureen Rowles.
If you looked more closely at the figures though you began to see an interesting renaissance in the Labour vote in some wards - the General Election boosting the turnout among Labour voters. Labour came fairly close to retaking the seats of Davenport and Cale Green and Manor from the Liberal Democrats, just missed out on taking Heatons North from the Tories and polled fairly well in Offerton, Bredbury and Woodley, Bredbury Green and Romiley, Cheadle Hulme North and Stepping Hill. These results were an indicator for what was to come in the Local Elections of 2011.
First came the discomfiture of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster entering a coalition with the Conservatives, then the harsher than campaigned for cuts, which followed quickly on from the Tuition Fees debacle. Councillors Ann Graham (North Reddish), David White and Roy Driver (both Davenport and Cale Green) quit the Liberal Democrat group in protest at central government policies. They originally sat as Independent Left councillors but had applied for membership of the Labour party (actually, they were all former Labour members).
The 2011 elections were not as bad for the Liberal Democrats as they could have been if Labour had realised quite how well they were going to do in some wards, but they lost overall control of the council, losing 2 seats to Labour (Manor and Davenport and Cale Green) and Bramhall North, Bredbury Green and Romiley and Hazel Grove to the Conservatives. The last two of these results are stunning as Hazel Grove had long been a fairly safe seat for the Liberal Democrats and Bredbury Green and Romiley was safe for the Liberals even back in the 80s when I was a Labour worker.
What made the difference? It was the rise of the Labour vote and the apparent refusal of many Labour voters, who had tactically backed the Lib Dems to keep the Tories out, to vote for a party that was not just implementing cuts at local level, but being responsible for many unpopular decisions in the Coalition at national level.
In Bredbury Green and Romiley, the Labour vote rose from 8.6% in 2007 to 22.3%, whilst the Lib Dem vote fell from 46.8% to 30% in the same period; this represents a swing of over 15% from Lib Dem to Labour. All the Conservative candidate had to do was hold on to win (actually, a small rise of 3.5% in the same period).
In Hazel Grove, there is a similar picture with Labour rising from 8.6 (2007) to 18.15%(2011), the Lib Dems falling from 46.8% to 36.15% and the Conservative vote falling (due to the intervention of UKIP) from 44.6% to 38.76%. A swing of over 10% from Lib Dem to Labour. The Conservatives managed to take the seat with their smallest share of the votes cast in years.
Even this isn't the end of the story as the Labour vote rose so dramatically in several seats that they are now in contention at the 2012 local elections. In Offerton (which this author always thought was in play) there was a swing to Labour of nearly 15.7% with the vote rising from 11.4% (and 4th place behind the BNP in 2007) to 31.57%, the Liberal Democrat vote falling from 48% to 36.84% in the same period, while the Conservative vote rose by 4.4% to 21.1%. In Cheadle Hulme North the long latent Labour vote shot up from 7.8% (2007) to 28.2% whilst the Liberal Democrat vote for the long serving Councillor Porgess fell from a staggering 58.8% (2007) to 41.61%, a swing from Lib Dem to Labour of 18.8%. The Conservatives share of the vote fell from 28.5% to 23.36%.
A similar process happened in Bredbury and Woodley (I remember when Bredbury returned a Labour Councillor, I am getting old)where the Labour vote shot up from 8.6% (2007) to 29.5% (2011), the Lib Dem share fell from a stratospheric 65.8% (2007) to 48.9% (2011); a swing here of just under 19% to Labour. The Conservative vote stayed almost static at 21.6%, a drop of just 1.1% in the same period.
In all three of the above cases, the Labour candidate took second place behind the Liberal Democrats which, I believe, will make it very interesting at the 2012 local elections as it will be hard for the Liberal Democrats to hold on to those remaining Labour-leaning tactical voters who will feel that their preferred candidate may now have a chance. There is of course a sizeable Conservative vote in all three constituencies which the Liberal Democrats will target, but who knows how successful that will be when the Liberal Democrat council is unpopular with Conservatives as well.
I think that Labour will take Offerton next year and put up a serious fight in both Cheadle Hulme North and Bredbury and Woodley, as well as, I further predict, taking Heatons North from the Conservatives, Manor and Brinnington and Central, along with Davenport and Cale Green from the Liberal Democrats. I also predict that the Labour vote will rise significantly in Stepping Hill, Cheadle Hulme South, Hazel Grove, Bredbury and Romiley, Cheadle and Gatley. Who knows what even a small rise in the Labour vote will do to the Liberal Democrats in both Marple seats?
These are interesting times for politics in Stockport and will pose questions for the Conservatives as well as they consider how they can take advantage of the problems facing their national partners but local rivals in the Liberal Democrat-led council. Of course, the Conservative vote has begun to fall as well and, if it falls more heavily next year, we could see some interesting results.