The political fall-out from the North West's local elections

Ballot boxImage source, PA
Image caption,
The Lib Dems are counting the cost of poor election results in the North West

A deceptively simple narrative has emerged to mark this year's local election results: the Liberal Democrats did very badly, Labour did quite well and the Conservatives escaped.

But it's not quite so simple in the North West. And since the region is a key general election battleground, the national parties should be taking note.

It's certainly true that the Lib Dems had a terrible election night.

I was in Liverpool, where it soon became clear that the party's worst fears were to be realised.

The party was defending 13 seats and ultimately lost 11.

In Manchester they were defending 11 and lost them all.

Poor performances

There were similarly poor performances in places including Cheshire East, Oldham, Rochdale, St Helens and Wirral.

But although the party lost control of Stockport, there was no meltdown there and the Lib Dems remain by far the largest group.

They also proved remarkably resilient in Burnley and South Lakeland.

But taken as a whole it was little short of a disaster. The Liberal Democrats lost a third of their seats. They now have the fewest number of councillors here for 15 years.

In Liverpool they had tried to distance themselves from the national party. In Manchester they had been overtly loyal. Neither approach worked.

But the idea that voters were simply punishing the Liberal Democrats is wrong.

The reason the Tories lost no councillors in Liverpool and Manchester is because they had none to begin with.

But elsewhere the Conservatives also had a bad night.

David Cameron lost four councils in the North West.

This year he could enjoy no celebratory visit to Blackpool, Bury, Rossendale or High Peak.

He can longer take pride in controlling more North West councils than the other two parties combined.

So what happened?

'Too deep'

There's little doubt that the central issue for voters was spending cuts and their profound impact on the North West.

Some senior Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors warned the cuts were too deep and too quick.

They were almost universally ignored.

The government's priority remained cutting the deficit, and that meant focusing on the most expensive councils.

But the most expensive councils in the region are also the ones with the greatest challenges. Millions of pounds of financial support for poorer areas has simply been wiped away.

The government imposed financial cuts and the electorate responded with political cuts.

But there is no point in the Liberal Democrats pretending this was purely a Tory policy. Lib Dems were just as quick to attack Labour councils for wasteful spending.

Few doubt there must be inefficiencies in local government. But on the whole, the electorate did not buy the government's rhetoric.

Low turnout

It is also worth noting that many councillors who defected from the Liberal Democrats and stood as independents were cut down in favour of Labour candidates.

Defection did not save their political lives.

Labour capitalised very successfully in the North West.

The party gained nine North West councils, more than a third of the national total.

Image source, bbc
Image caption,
Only 20% of people voted in Manchester's local elections

It has clearly re-established itself locally as the most powerful political force in the North West.

But if so many gains were made here, it's a reminder that relatively few were made elsewhere.

Also, turnout was quite low in places.

Just 20% bothered to vote in Manchester. That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Labour.

Professor Jon Tonge from Liverpool University tells me that half of Liberal Democrat voters switched to Labour, the other half simply stayed at home.

It has been a memorable election for Labour but there's still plenty of work to do.

And the Lib Dems and Tories would be wise to remember they need to maintain support in the region too.