South Ribble local elections 2023: Labour put historic victory down to 'being in touch' as Tories plegde to keep scrutinising and Lib Dems are promised their past support will not be forgotten
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Paul Foster told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he was “overwhelmed” by the result – announced late on Friday afternoon – which saw Labour take sole control of the authority for the first time since the 1995-1999 period, when the prevailing nationwide wind was with the party under Tony Blair.
It is only the second time since South Ribble Borough Council was formed in 1974 that the local Labour group has had an outright majority.
The party has run the district with the support of the Liberal Democrats on an issue-by-issue basis since the last local vote in 2019, but this time round scooped 29 of the 50 seats in the all-out poll – clearing the threshold needed to be able to rule alone.
“I think a lot of it is [down to] local issues – we’ve worked hard with our community and been in touch with our community. I’m not going to be naive [enough] to say national issues didn’t have some impact, but it was national and local issues – and the fact that we have done a good job…over the last four years,” Cllr Foster said.
Asked whether he would jettison the Liberal Democrats now that he no longer required their support to get Labour’s plans through the council, he said that he had no intention of casting them out.
“I’m very grateful for the support they gave me over the last four years and we’ll continue to work closely with all councillors – of course we will,” Cllr Foster added.
For his part, Lib Dem group leader David Howarth – who once again secured the most votes of any individual councillor on the authority, with over 1,600 residents backing him in the party’s stronghold ward of Howick and Priory – said that he was “proud” of ensuring a stable minority Labour administration since 2019, as well as the Lib Dem policies that the arrangement had helped enact.
“We’ve not always agreed [with Labour], but the council was a basket case at the last elections and desperately needed to change.
“We still hope that [Labour] will take on board suggestions that we put forward and will consider areas outside of the ones [where] they have won, “ said Cllr Howarth, whose group retains the five seats it previously held.
Meanwhile, Conservative opposition leader Karen Walton – whose party now holds 16 seats, down from 23 after the vote in 2019 – paid tribute to the “hardworking” Tory councillors who had been lost.
However, she pledged to keep “getting the message across” about the two issues that the Conservatives campaigned heavily on in South Ribble this year – contested claims about levels of planned housebuilding and council debt – and also reflected on the role that she felt UK politics had played in the borough result.
“It’s disappointing, but I’m not surprised with the national picture. Although [Labour] have got a majority, it’s not a very big majority and we will continue to work hard – for every decision they make, we will scrutinise it,” Cllr Walton pledged.
It took more than a dozen declarations during Friday’s vote count at the South Ribble Tennis Centre in Bamber Bridge before a single one of the 50 seats changed hands across the total 23 multi-seat wards in the borough. But towards the end of the day, there was a flurry of Tory falls – with Labour securing seven gains on their 2019 result.
The party snatched single seats in the Walton-le-Dale East, Farington East and Coupe Green and Gregson Lane wards. But it was double-seat gains in Lostock Hall and Buckshaw and Worden which pushed the party over the line for an outright majority.
However, Labour did not have all its own way, with sitting councillor Mal Donoghue – who had represented the Seven Stars ward since 2016 – losing out after opting to contest Moss Side this year, where Conservative stalwarts Michael and Mary Green both held on.
Turnout across the borough was just under 32 percent.
There were mixed fortunes for two former Tories who defected to Labour since the last election and stood again in the same wards under their new party’s banner.
David Suthers narrowly failed to retain Hoole, having shifted allegiance to Labour just weeks before this week’s poll – and the ward remains represented by two Conservatives.
However, voters in Farington East stuck with Paul Wharton-Hardman, who was elected as a Tory in 2019 and later became an independent before finally switching to Labour almost 18 months ago.
Speaking after the result, Cllr Wharton-Hardman told the LDRS he was delighted that residents had given him an increased majority in his new political home “to continue fighting for them”.
“I’ve always stood up for my community irrespective of politics, but our Labour group have shown that they are compassionate for our community, caring for our residents and competent to run the council,” he said.