Twenty five thousand candidates standing for eight thousand seats in five thousand wards – that’s this year’s English local elections in short.
They represent what might be Rishi Sunak’s last major electoral test before the general election. You have Home Counties England going to the polls, much of it for the first time since the 2019 Brexit wars. You have the suburbs and commuter towns up for grabs – key battleground boroughs that in 2010 spelt the end for New Labour and in 2023 might do the same for Tory Britain. You have university towns and countryside districts going to the polls – opportunities for the Greens and the Lib Dems to flex their muscles. And you have Red Wall England up once more – can Labour make a definitive recovery?
Below I have mapped what’s up and how those wards voted last time. Most of the seats last went to the polls in May 2019, when Labour and the Tories were almost neck and neck, but the chaos created by surging support for the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party upset expectations.
As with every local election, expectation management from party officials – which is sometimes swallowed by those who should know better – will prove tedious, and I ask readers not to fall for it. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher – veteran election watchers – suggest that a 6 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour would guarantee Tory seat losses of close to 1,000, with nearly 700 gains for Labour. While local election forecasts are hazardous, as I have sometimes learned to my own cost, numbers such as these would be reflective of the polls, with a margin of 100 seats or so for error.
Local elections normally flatter the smaller parties, with supporters of larger ones often changing their vote or staying at home. And local election vote shares are just as swing-prone as national ones, if not more so. Crawley, for instance, swung in 2018 from a Tory-Labour stalemate to a ten-point Tory lead in 2021 and then a three-point Labour one in 2022. Lincoln, conversely, swung from an 11-point Labour lead in 2018 to a 12-point Tory one in 2021.
The issue with local elections is you can either get outsized swings or none at all, so it is best to observe select battleground boroughs, or an aggregate of marginal constituencies, rather than one in isolation. Some places go against the national trend. Between 2018 and 2019, for instance, while Labour led nationally (just), in Crawley and Peterborough it lost support.
[See also: Britain Predicts]
There will be plenty to watch out for on results night. While I will be writing more in the coming weeks, here are a few pointers from someone who’s been covering the elections intimately for the last ten years.
Labour needs to show it can win – not just in its old heartlands but in the suburbs and commuter towns too: Swindon, South Gloucestershire, Stevenage, Rugby and Milton Keynes. These are the towns and cities that went Tory in 2010 and ended 13 years of Labour government. It is vital that the party does well in most, if not all of them, if it is to return to office.
The south side of the Thames Estuary should also be up for grabs. These local authorities drifted from Tony Blair’s grasp as far back as 2005. If Labour wants to show it’s on course for a majority, we need to see some big gains here, from Dartford through to Gillingham, with perhaps even some signs of a comeback in Thanet too.
The Lib Dems need to show they’re dominant in affluent England. Should they fail, their by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham will look more like a blip than a gear change. Look for gains by them in Woking, Elmbridge (Dominic Raab’s council constituency), Dacorum (site of their campaign launch) and Oxfordshire.
Moving northwards, I note that Amber Valley is now rarely spoken of as a marginal. When I last checked, three quarters of the councillors there were Tory. In 2010 the Tories won the council only by a small margin. Since then, however, the borough both in parliament and in the council chamber has grown ever more Conservative. A resurgent Labour, combined with the Reform party, could reverse all that. The borough is, once more, one to watch.
Middlesbrough turned against Labour in 2019 during the Brexit wars – the year when most of the seats now vacant were last up. A slew of independents were elected, and an independent administration has tried to do things differently. But efforts to transfer both community assets and planning powers from the council to a “mayoral development corporation” proved controversial, with those independent councillors, the proponents of the scheme, not even bothering to turn up to vote. As a consequence, the vote failed. Labour should expect to benefit in May.
The Greens are bullish in Lancaster and Suffolk, boroughs separated both by geography and identity. While they are up against Labour in Lancaster, and may very well succeed, in Suffolk it is Tory voters they are winning over. It is not impossible to envisage a result on 4 May which leaves the Greens governing countryside Suffolk but sees them relegated to opposition status in Brighton and Hove, where Labour is confident and the Conservatives are in panic.
There are few signs of a “progressive alliance” this election. There are more Green candidates standing in Labour seats than ever before. Bracknell Forest seems to be the exception. Situated in Berkshire between Reading and Slough, the locale is overwhelmingly Conservative: 37 out of the 42 seats are Tory. But in every one of the Conservative seats up for grabs it appears the Liberal Democrats have done deals with Labour and the Greens, for where there are Labour candidates there are no Lib Dems. And where there are Green candidates there are no Lib Dems. And where there are Lib Dem candidates, there are no Greens or Labour. I don’t think I’ve seen a situation as obvious as this. Let’s see how it turns out.