This year’s local elections in Darlington will be the first time the Conservatives and Labour will face each other in four years, as both parties aim to improve on their previous results at the polls.
In 2019, the Conservatives became the largest party on Darlington Borough Council after Labour suffered significant losses, including several seats to their arch rivals.
The election outcome in 2019 presented two polar opposites but also mirrored the outcome in 1976: Labour’s worst result and the Conservatives’ best. It was in 1976 when the Conservatives last had overall control of the council, and although they didn’t achieve that same success in 2019, they still struck a power sharing deal to become the ruling party.
Labour’s loss 43 years ago was particularly significant given James Callaghan was Labour Prime Minister at the time, but in 2019 it was Theresa May at the helm.
Overall, at the last election Labour lost nine seats and control, while the Tories gained five to become the largest party with 22 seats.
The result can now be viewed as extremely significant for the town, and one which lit the touchpaper for Conservative MP Peter Gibson to be voted in later in December, while also becoming the first Tory-run local authority in the previous Labour ‘Red Wall’ stronghold. Darlington had elected a Labour MP at every poll since 1992, but by May 2019 it had begun to lose its grip on power in the North East.
When Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor for the Tees Valley, was first elected in 2017, all five council leaders in the area were Labour. But by the 2019 General Election there were none.
Cllr Kevin Nicholson, an independent member in Eastbourne, said Labour had lost because it “stopped listening to people and became complacent” on local issues, while reflecting: “these are areas where you wouldn’t, 10 years ago, have worn a blue rosette in the streets.”
The local issues that Cllr Nicholson mentioned centre around the day-to-day running of the council like bin collections and anti-social behaviour but it was Labour’s attempt to close the Crown Street library which was highly contentious.
Councillors said the planned closure was due to austerity enforced by the Conservative government but a U-turn late in 2018 wasn’t enough to save it. While the library campaign received enhanced attention it also unearthed voters’ concerns about the management of the town.
Although Labour’s losses attracted the headlines, 2019 was also a significant year for the Green Party, when two of their members entered the council chamber for the first time after triumphing in the College ward. The Liberal Democrats held onto their three seats, while three independent councillors were voted in.
With the next General Election likely to be held in 2024 May’s local elections will be a significant indication of how future leadership of the town will look in the future.