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Phil Rodgers’ analysis of the May 2024 Cambridge City Council and PCC elections





Our political commentator, Phil Rodgers, delivers his analysis of the local election results.

As the Cambridge local election vote count was coming to a conclusion earlier this month, one councillor described this year’s results as a “score-draw”. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. There was at least something for everyone, but none of the parties got all the results they were hoping for. Here’s a look at how things turned out, and what it tells us about the prospects for elections to come.

Phil Rodgers. Picture: Keith Heppell
Phil Rodgers. Picture: Keith Heppell

Labour can be pretty happy about how their campaign went. They had nine seats to defend, and they defended them all successfully, maintaining their comfortable majority on the city council. There were some nervous moments in Coleridge, where the Greens were pressing hard, but Labour saw off the Lib Dem challenge in both East and West Chesterton, as well as the Conservatives in Cherry Hinton and King’s Hedges.

However, there was disappointment for Anna Smith as she came agonisingly close to winning the police and crime commissioner election, finishing just two per cent behind Conservative Darryl Preston.

It was more of a mixed picture for the Lib Dems. They held three of the four seats they were defending, with an increased majority in Queen Edith’s, but by uncomfortably small margins in Market and Trumpington.

However, despite determined Lib Dem campaigns in East and West Chesterton, Labour’s vote proved resilient in both, and there was disaster for the yellow team in Newnham, where Lucy Nethsingha lost her city council seat to the Greens.

Although this was widely expected, I was still surprised by the size of the Green majority. Lucy Nethsingha still holds the Newnham seat on the county council, but that is up for election next year, and a similar result seems quite possible.

Labour celebrates a successful election in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Labour celebrates a successful election in Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

A longer-term problem for the Lib Dems is that they now only have two wards where they are in second place - in the remaining nine they are either third or fourth. They have a long road back before they can once again challenge for control of the city council.

Many years ago when I was an election campaign organiser, someone once asked me, “What would you do if you were the Greens?” At that time the Greens had no council seats. My answer was that I’d focus all the campaigning resources on one ward, and when I’d won that, pick a second ward, and so on.

This is essentially the strategy that the Greens have been following in recent elections. After first winning in Abbey, they then moved on to Newnham, and are now also challenging in Coleridge. It will be interesting to see where they go next - they are in second place in Petersfield and Romsey, but both have very large Labour majorities. Perhaps the student wards of Castle and Market might be more fruitful for them, particularly if there is a change of government.

The Conservatives focused their city council campaign mainly on two wards, Cherry Hinton, where they came very close last year, and King’s Hedges, which they won in a dramatic by-election last July. However, in both cases they lost out to Labour, who went some of the way to restoring their normally large majorities, particularly in Cherry Hinton.

Darryl Preston celebrates with his campaign team after winning another tern as police and crime commissioner. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darryl Preston celebrates with his campaign team after winning another tern as police and crime commissioner. Picture: Keith Heppell

On the other hand the Conservatives were cheered by Darryl Preston’s narrow victory in the PCC election.

Most of the Independent and minor party candidates made little impact. The only one to finish higher than fourth was second-placed David Summerfield in Castle, who was particularly pleased to poll ahead of the Lib Dems, though he was some way further behind Labour than last year.

Looking at this year’s results, there are several questions which spring to mind. Will the Greens displace the Lib Dems as the main opposition on the city council? Is congestion charging still a live political issue? What happened in the PCC election, and what are the implications for next year’s Combined Authority mayor election? And what does it all mean for the General Election? Let’s take these one at a time.

Will the Greens displace the Lib Dems? Certainly not yet, and probably only slowly. The Lib Dems still have twice as many councillors as the Greens, and the Greens are currently managing around one gain per year. Across the city, the Greens’ vote share is catching up to the Lib Dems, but they haven’t yet overhauled them. If Labour gets into power nationally, that will change the landscape for both Greens and Lib Dems in local elections, but unless a new Labour government manages to make itself very unpopular very quickly, that too will take some time.

Cambridge City Council election vote shares. Graphic: Phil Rodgers
Cambridge City Council election vote shares. Graphic: Phil Rodgers

Does congestion charging still matter at the ballot box? Not nearly as much as last year, but there is still some impact. The graph shows the vote shares for each party in the last few years. You can see the significant swing from Labour to the Conservatives last year - this was 7.7 per cent across the city - largely due to the congestion charge issue. The Conservatives ran a very roads-focused campaign again this year, but suffered a swing back to Labour of 4.3 per cent. This suggests that there is still some congestion charge effect, but that it is greatly reduced now that the plans have been halted.

What about the PCC election? Two factors favoured Labour - the national polls, and differential turnout - but these weren’t quite enough to overcome the two factors that favoured the Conservatives - the change in the voting system, and the lack of a Reform candidate.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough PCC election turnout
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough PCC election turnout

The graph [pcc-turnout.png] shows turnout this time compared to the last PCC elections in 2021. It was down everywhere, but much less so in Cambridge and Peterborough, which unlike the other districts had council elections on the same day. This certainly helped Labour, who did better in the two cities compared to the more rural districts.

However, with no second-choice vote transfers, and no Reform candidate to siphon off Conservative votes, it wasn’t quite enough to put Anna Smith over the line. Labour needed a 5.8 per cent swing overall from the Conservatives to win the election. The graph shows what they got in each area - more than enough in some districts, but short in others, and a swing back to the blue team in Cambridge.

The PCC swing from Conservative to Labour in Cambridgeshire. Graphic: Phil Rodgers
The PCC swing from Conservative to Labour in Cambridgeshire. Graphic: Phil Rodgers

What does this imply for next year’s Combined Authority mayor election? It suggests that Nik Johnson has a very tough fight on his hands. However, in 2021 Labour did a little bit better in the mayoral election than they did in the PCC vote, and a little bit better is all they need.

What does it all mean for the General Election? Really it’s difficult to reach any very firm conclusions on the basis of these results, beyond the fact that Cambridge is looking pretty safe for Labour, which is no surprise to anyone.

A General Election will bring out large numbers of voters who didn’t turn out for the local elections, and in any case voters will probably be much less concerned about bins and potholes when they are choosing their MP. So if you see any bar charts suggesting a General Election constituency outcome based on local election results, take them with a large pinch of salt.

Finally, no survey of this year’s elections would be complete without paying tribute to the Electoral Services team at the city council, who work tremendously hard to keep the wheels of democracy turning. They had an excellent election, even improvising a car-based polling station in West Chesterton when access to the Milton Road library was delayed, and the counting process went very smoothly. And it won’t be very long until they have to do it all over again for the General Election.



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