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April 25, 2023

Could the local elections be a damp squib for Labour? Here’s what councillors think

A New Statesman poll suggests local government representatives are ambivalent about Labour’s election chances.

By Ben Walker

Could the local elections be a damp squib for Labour? A New Statesman Spotlight survey of local councillors suggests so.

It is very difficult to poll how people would vote in a local council election. Attempts to do so in Scotland have always left both the commissioners and pollsters embarrassed, because every survey understates the prominence of people voting for independent candidates. Nevertheless, normal voting intentions can give you an indication as to which way things are swinging. And we should, at least, be confident of a sizeable swing to Labour.

But ask councillors on the ground and the circumstances are a little more nuanced. When asked how they think support among local people for Labour has changed since 2019, the overwhelming majority of the party’s councillors polled say support is up. Forty-two per cent say by a lot, but 44 per cent say by a little. Six per cent, meanwhile, say support has fallen since 2019.

Likewise, half of Conservative councillors say support has decreased by only a little. Just over a quarter say by a lot.

Labour nationally is up by more than ten points on the 2019 general election. For the uninitiated, that’s not a little, that’s a lot. Labour is polling at a level that would secure them a landslide victory if a general election was held today – a stark reversal of what happened in 2019. For most councillors polled to observe that support on the ground has shifted by only “a little” is either an understatement, or a point that the national picture isn’t being properly felt locally.

Watch: Ben Walker meets councillors and candidates ahead of the local elections

To me, it suggests those turning to Labour are either people the party has no data on, or are people that used to vote for Labour, stopped in 2019 and have since returned (ie, voters already assumed to be Labour voters). It also feeds the narrative that the primary driver of the Labour lead has been rising apathy among Tory voters. Regardless, the observation is significant.

Successful councillors can claim some level of local knowledge and engagement in their ward, yet their positions, which are at risk in the May elections, are often decided by national winds way beyond their control. At any rate, few councillors believe residents understand who they are or what exactly they do.

[See also: Can Brand Rishi Sunak save the Tories at the polls?]

That confidence is highest among Labour councillors, lowest among Tories – perhaps an insight into the lower knowledge of local government in more rural districts?

When it comes to making a difference, meanwhile, most councillors would confidently say they can. Few say they feel they can make no difference. But note the number polled saying they can only make a little difference.

Thirty-two per cent of councillors polled say they can make a big difference to their local area. This compares with 64 per cent who say they can make just a little difference, and 4 per cent who feel they make no difference at all.

While cynicism and confidence is highest among Tory councillors, the significant lack in variation by political party is interesting. From this alone it appears there is a general feeling among all councillors that making an outsized impact at a local level is unlikely, though not, it seems, impossible.

It is findings like these that might explain why voters do not know their local representatives. Why bother when they can only make a minute difference? Why bother understanding the powers of local government when it appears they are toothless, and when their elections are often decided by what is happening in Westminster?

The full results of the New Statesman Spotlight's councillors' survey will be published online and in next week's magazine.

[See also: Britain Predicts: who would win the election if it was held today]

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