It was doom and gloom for the Tories in most places in last Thursday’s English council elections, however, the party bucked the trend in Leicester with no less than seventeen gains after a standing start – the party was left without representation four years ago.
For the last four years, I have been Deputy Chair (Political) at the Leicester Conservative Federation. I have overseen a period in Leicester politics like no other. A period that has seen defections, surprise by-election results and unfortunately violence on the streets.
Just miles from Leicester, in Charnwood, Northwest Leicestershire, Harborough, and Rutland Conservatives were losing seats, so what do the election results in Leicester tell us and how may this be the start of a more turbulent time for local authority governance in England?
The higher you start, the quicker you can fall.
On the face of it, the 2023 result in Leicester seems like a shock turnaround. However, in reality, things quickly changed after the 2019 result. Leicester East MP Keith Vaz was forced out after a series of scandals, before the General Election of the same year. Labour replaced him with an Islington Councillor, Claudia Webbe. However, due to Webbe’s previous denouncement of India’s conduct in Kashmir, she proved to be a divisive figure in a constituency that is home to over 65,000 people of Indian heritage.
Following Webbe’s appointment as a candidate, six sitting Leicester Labour Councillors described the party as ‘anti-Indian’. Labour did however hold on to the seat, despite losing over 16% of their vote share.
The damage caused by Webbe’s campaign was further cemented by key Labour Party members’ conduct during the COVID pandemic. Two sitting Councillors, as well as the directly elected City Mayor, were caught breaking the restrictions early into the national lockdowns.
The Council then chose this optimal moment to launch what turned out to be a highly contentious local plan that identified numerous local green spaces for housing, industrial sites and traveller camps.
In less than twelve months the strength of Labour’s local election result in 2019 had diminished with challenges coming from all directions.
Comings and goings
Labour’s Leicester crisis was worsened by a series of by-elections in 2021, which saw the Conservatives hugely increase their share of the vote and win one seat on the council.
Long-term Leicester servant, Deepak Bajaj, also defected to the Conservatives from Labour citing institutional racism. With two Councillors the party could form a group in the chamber for the first time in around ten years.
However, the upward trend for the Conservatives was dampened by comings and goings at a national level with Boris Johnson’s premiership ending and Liz Truss becoming the Prime Minster.
Truss’ disastrous mini-budget left the party’s by-election victor feeling like he had no home inside of the party any longer and he resigned the whip and his Conservative membership. Just weeks after the Conservative group formed, it was disbanded.
Violence on the streets
In late September and early October Leicester experienced some of the darkest days of the city’s history. The issues that had been rumbling between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Leicester bubbled over. For weeks the streets were filled with violence between communities.
The response from Leicester’s City Mayor heightened conflict further when he concluded that the violence was because of the increase in those identifying themselves with the ‘Hindutva’ ideology. By subtly blaming the Hindu community, Peter Soulsby created a further drift within the communities without acknowledging the definition of ‘Hindutva’.
Soulsby’s decision to appoint Dr Chris to lead an ‘independent’ investigation into the conflict created further tension with the Hindu community forcing Dr Allen to step down. The University of Leicester Professor had previously made comments on social media that highlighted his conclusion before the actual investigation took place. He was labelled ‘unfair’ and ‘impartial’ by community leaders, many of whom stated they would boycott Allen’s investigation.
This in turn led to another Labour Councillor stepping down and a fourth by-election in under two years in Leicester East. The Conservatives won the seat with over 50% of the vote, giving them their second Councillor in the city once again.
To Mayor or not to Mayor
In December 2022, the Conservatives launched a campaign to remove the position of City Mayor in Leicester and revert the Council to a Leader and Cabinet model. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats followed suit stating they would call a referendum on the issue.
By January of this year, Labour’s NEC declared Labour in Leicester was to be placed under a Campaign Improvement Board, meaning their local party would have no jurisdiction over the running of their local election campaign or the selection of candidates.
Multiple Councillors resigned from the party and a motion was called by a sitting Labour Councillor to remove the Mayoral Position at a full Council meeting. 15 sitting Labour Councillors voted for the motion to remove the Mayor, demonstrating how divided the Party was in Leicester.
Days later the list of Labour candidates for the upcoming elections was released, and 19 Labour Councillors lost their seats, including all of the sitting Hindu Councillors.
Instantly defection took place. Three of the deselected Councillors joined the Conservatives, one joined the Green Party, one joined the Socialists and a further nine announced that they would be running as independent candidates in the May elections.
On 5 May as the Conservatives were losing seats across the country the Conservatives in Leicester made 17 gains. Giving the party more seats in the City than it has had since the 70s.
Whilst we hear Labour cheers and Conservative hurt across England, in Leicester roles were reversed. Conservatives have never had the percentage of seats that they have today and Labour didn’t lose as many seats anywhere else in the Country.
The events in Leicester over the past four years demonstrate the importance of local factors in what is after all a vote on local matters. These events could be mirrored in many other areas of the Country where there are difficult inter-community conversations in many places, complex local plan campaigns ongoing, and many political positions that are under threat.
It will be interesting to see how these very local issues play out at the next national general election. But with 12 to 18 months to wait, Leicester has proven anything could happen.