Few cities are as synonymous with New Labour as Hull. The city has elected only Labour MPs since the 1960s, including John Prescott, who hulked over Kingston upon Hull East for 40 years, and Alan Johnson, who divided his time between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s cabinets and the Hessle Road.
On Thursday night, however, Labour was delivered a bloody nose by 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 going into coalition with the Conservatives, they now appear sufficiently detoxified to cause major headaches for Labour and the Tories alike.
Celebrating dozens of gains, including pushing David’s Cameron’s local council in West Oxfordshire into no overall control and overtaking Labour as the biggest party in Stockport, the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, was cock-a-hoop.
“What began as a tremor in Chesham and Amersham [and] became an earthquake in North Shropshire is now an almighty shockwave that will bring this Conservative government tumbling down,” he said, referencing the party’s recent byelection victories.
The party was heading towards a net gain of 80 seats on Friday afternoon. Davey started the day with a speech in Wimbledon, south-west London, where his party took 12 seats on the local council, Merton, mainly from the Tories. “The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting beneath Boris Johnson’s feet,” he said, before rushing to Somerset, where the Lib Dems had taken control of the local council from the Conservatives.
A series of other gains saw the party erode support from the Tories in “blue wall” commuter-belt areas, including Woking and Elmbridge, both in Surrey. In the latter, the Lib Dems made gains in the constituency of the justice secretary, Dominic Raab.
In Hull, what was overlooked amid all the talk of yellow fever was the fact that the Lib Dems ran the East Yorkshire city in the not too distant past. There is a framed newspaper headline in the office of the Liberal Democrat group at Hull’s Guildhall, which commemorates their big achievement last time they were in control, from 2007 to 2011. “Council not the worst in the country,” reported the Hull Daily Mail a few years into the party’s last reign, when Hull moved slightly up the Audit Commission’s table of best- and worst-performing local authorities.
The Lib Dems are typically happy about celebrating a marginal gain. No achievement is too minor to be memorialised in a leaflet: every pothole filled, every drop kerb delivered, each planning application defeated.
“They’re excellent campaigners,” conceded the Labour MP Karl Turner, who took over from Prescott in Kingston upon Hull East in 2010. “They take credit for everything. If I went outside my house now and picked up some dog poo with a shovel, you can be sure that the next day they’ll put out a leaflet saying, ‘Lib Dems delivering: we are getting dog poo picked up.’”
Hull is home to the Liberal Democrats’ national campaign chief, Dave McCobb, who held his council seat on Thursday night. The new leader of Hull city council, Michael Ross, said McCobb was “very good at reading the electorate in terms of what’s happening and the mood, and he just gets what’s going on”.
Turner thinks Labour was “not vicious enough” in campaigning against the Lib Dems in Hull. “We should have been hammering home to voters that the Lib Dems signed off the 55% cuts to Hull city council that we are still suffering today.” But Ross, who was first elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor as a 21-year-old Hull University student in 2002, thinks voters have forgiven the party for the sins of the coalition period. “It’s been a while since tuition fees have come up on the doorstep,” he said.
Turner chalks up the Lib Dem victory in Hull to widely despised roadworks that have caused gridlock across the city for months; the introduction of cycle lanes and bus lanes during the pandemic, which have taken further space away from frustrated motorists; and unpopular plans to build hundreds of new houses.
Ross agrees those issues were important during the campaign, but he rejected the idea of his party as opportunistic goalhangers. “We won through a combination of people feeling disgusted and let down by the Conservative government and fed up with the local Labour council,” he said.
The win was the culmination of 11 years of hard graft, he said. “In 2011 we lost 10 out of 12 wards we were defending. Nationally, we took a kicking. But while in some places the party withered away on the vine, we were determined not to let that happen.”
Turner nearly lost to the Conservatives in 2019, scraping though with a majority of 1,239. He takes heart from what he sees as the collapse of the Tory vote in Hull, which led to the party losing its sole councillor.
However, he cannot just rely on an unpopular government if he is to win in the next general election. Enthusiasm for Keir Starmer’s Labour party is hard to discern on Humberside. “All Starmer does is criticise the government. He’s got nothing to offer the country,” said Stuart Ramsay, 68, a retired mechanical fitter and shop steward who described his politics as “slightly to the left of the middle of the road”.
He said: “As a trade unionist all my life, I learned that you cannot go into a meeting and just complain. You have to have something to offer. I think Boris Johnson is like Winston Churchill was in world war two – he’s the best of a bad lot. If Angela Rayner was the leader, the Labour party might be in a better place. She seems to have a better grip on things.”