OPINION: Paul Taylor, chief executive of FCC Environment, discusses the outcome of yesterday’s local elections and what this means for the waste and recycling sector going forward.
It is the morning after the night before and the results from the local elections are now in. Yesterday was the biggest ballot box test for political parties since last year’s general election. It was also the last set of elections before Britain leaves the EU and gave English voters the chance to pass an early verdict on Theresa May and her main opposition rival, Jeremy Corbyn, before the next general election.
With more than 4,000 seats being contested, and Brexit leaving the nation divided politically, much was at stake for both main parties – and for the future of waste policy.
Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 general election result left many inside the Conservative Party unhappy with her leadership – this disillusionment has been further compounded by the ongoing and somewhat torturous Brexit negotiations. In the lead-up to local elections, Tory expectations for a good result were fading fast, with many fearing the party could lose control of traditional strongholds, such as key London boroughs and rural constituencies. On the other hand, there was a lot of hype about Labour’s chances of “turning London red”, with many members, particularly from Momentum, feeling optimistic.
In reality, the overall picture this morning is mixed for both parties. Labour failed to produce the kind of surge that many were expecting, and which would have allowed it to argue that it is a government-in-waiting. The Conservatives fared better than expected and managed to avoid the kind of wipe-out some had feared – but the results do not point to a party capable of winning an overall majority at a general election. The biggest surprise of the night was the Lib Dems, who enjoyed the smallest of revivals, gaining former strongholds such as Richmond and holding Sutton and Eastleigh. However, the party remains far off the vote share it had pre-the Coalition Government. UKIP has meanwhile collapsed into irrelevance.
Local elections are notoriously tricky in terms of acting as an indicator of voter sentiment. This is because, unlike a general election, voters are able to mix-and-match their ballot paper choices. Notwithstanding that large caveat, the story of 2018 seems to confirm that of 2017: Labour is doing well in the big cities, the Tories are doing well everywhere else, but neither is strong enough on its own to win a majority in Parliament.
So what does this mean for the waste sector?
Well, in short, nothing particularly new. Had the Conservatives fared badly, it could have had ominous consequences for our industry. Theresa May would have likely faced a leadership challenge, causing the Government go into shutdown for several months while MPs decided on a successor. This could have created a fatal hiatus in waste policy, not to mention more cabinet reshuffles going forward, potentially putting a stopper on the strong political momentum around waste and resource issues that we’ve become so accustomed to over the past year. It would have almost certainly meant the delayed publication of Defra’s Resource & Waste Strategy, as well as the forthcoming National Infrastructure Commission’s report on waste infrastructure – both of which are crucial to help inform future investment and delivery strategies for our sector.
“Richmond’s new Liberal Democrat leader said today that their campaign had been as much about “bins as Brexit”, suggesting that day-to-day experience, as well as national issues, are shaping voter intentions”Paul Taylor
However, the Conservatives have managed to cling on, indicating at this early stage that, from a policy perspective, things remain broadly the same. There is one interesting trend to emerge from this round of elections, though, and that is a resurgence of hyper-local campaigning. We saw campaigns across the political spectrum focusing on ultra-local issues, from bin collections to pot holes and lower council tax. Richmond’s new Liberal Democrat leader said today that their campaign had been as much about “bins as Brexit”, suggesting that day-to-day experience, as well as national issues, are shaping voter intentions. Interesting food for thought in terms of where we might be able to effect change locally.
What these elections do confirm is the diversity of political opinion across England, something which was initially flung into the spotlight when the UK voted to Brexit. While it may look from the outside that there’s been a swing back to two-party politics, there is clearly lots more going on under the surface. And this means even more uncertainty for business, including our sector. What we seem to have avoided is another policy vacuum – for now, at least.