Fe towns are as synonymous with New Labor as Hull. The city has elected only Labor MPs since the 1960s, including John Prescott, who haunted Kingston on Hull East for 40 years, and Alan Johnson, who split his time between the cabinets of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Hessle Road.
On Thursday night, however, Labor got a nosebleed from the Liberal Democrats, who took control of Hull City Council on a promising night for England’s third party. Twelve years after the Lib Dems alienated much of the electorate by forming a coalition with the Tories, they now appear sufficiently detoxified to cause major headaches for Labor and Tories alike.
Celebrating dozens of gains, including pushing David’s Cameron local council in West Oxfordshire to no overall control and overtaking Labor as Stockport’s largest party, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey was mad .
“What started as a tremor in Chesham and Amersham [and] has become an earthquake in North Shropshire is now an all-powerful shock wave that will bring down this Conservative government,” he said, referring to the party’s recent by-election victories.
The party was heading for a net gain of 80 seats on Friday afternoon. Davey started the day with a speech at Wimbledon, south-west London, where his party won 12 seats in the local council, Merton, mostly from the Conservatives. “The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting under Boris Johnson’s feet,” he said, before rushing to Somerset, where the Lib Dems had taken control of the local council from the Tories.
A series of other gains saw the party erode Tory support in ‘blue wall’ suburban belt areas, including Woking and Elmbridge, both in Surrey. In the latter, the Lib Dems made gains in Justice Secretary Dominic Raab’s constituency.
In Hull, what has been overlooked amid all the yellow fever talk is the fact that the Lib Dems ruled the East Yorkshire town in the not-too-distant past. There’s a framed newspaper headline in the Liberal Democrat group’s office in Hull’s Guildhall, which commemorates their great achievement the last time they were in charge, from 2007 to 2011. ‘Council not the worst in the country “, reported the Hull Daily Mail. a few years after the party’s last reign, when Hull moved up the Audit Commission table of best and worst performing Local Authorities slightly.
The Lib Dems are usually happy to celebrate a marginal gain. No accomplishment is too small to be documented in a brochure: every pothole filled, every curb delivered, every development request rejected.
“They are great campaigners,” conceded Labor MP Karl Turner, who succeeded Prescott in Kingston upon Hull East in 2010. “They take credit for everything. If I walked out of my house now and scooped up dog poo with a shovel, you can be sure the next day they’d put out a flier saying, “Lib Dems pound: we get dog poo picked up.”
Hull is home to Liberal Democrat national campaign leader Dave McCobb, who took his council seat on Thursday night. New Hull City Council leader Michael Ross said McCobb was “very good at reading the electorate in terms of what’s going on and the mood, and he understands what’s going on”.
Turner believes Labor has not been “vicious enough” in its campaign against the Liberal Democrats in Hull. “We should have pounded on voters that the Lib Dems signed the 55% cuts to Hull City Council that we are still suffering today.” But Ross, who was first elected as a Liberal Democrat adviser as a 21-year-old student at the University of Hull in 2002, believes voters have forgiven the party for the sins of the coalition period. “It’s been a while since tuition has gone up,” he said.
Turner attributes the Lib Dem victory in Hull to widely despised roadworks that caused citywide traffic jams for months; the introduction of cycle lanes and dedicated bus lanes during the pandemic, which have taken up more space from frustrated motorists; and unpopular plans to build hundreds of new homes.
Ross agrees these issues were important during the campaign, but he dismissed the idea of his party as opportunistic goalkeepers. ‘We won thanks to a combination of people feeling disgusted and let down by the Tory government and fed up with the local labor council,’ he said.
The win was the culmination of 11 years of hard work, he said. “In 2011, we lost 10 out of 12 neighborhoods that we were defending. At the national level, we have taken a kick. But while in some places the party has withered on the vine, we were determined not to let that happen.
Turner came close to losing to the Conservatives in 2019, however scraping with a majority of 1,239. He is pleased with what he sees as the collapse of the Conservative vote in Hull, which has led to the party losing its sole councillor.
However, he cannot simply rely on an unpopular government if he wants to win the next general election. Keir Starmer’s enthusiasm for Labor is hard to discern on Humberside. “All Starmer does is criticize the government. He has nothing to offer the country,” said Stuart Ramsay, 68, a retired mechanical fitter and shop steward who described his policy as “slightly left of the middle of the road.”
He said: “As a trade unionist all my life, I have learned that you cannot go to a meeting and complain. You must have something to offer. I think Boris Johnson is like Winston Churchill was in WWII – he’s the best of a bad batch. If Angela Rayner were the leader, Labor might be in a better position. She seems to have a better grip on things.