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April 30, 2024

2024 UK local elections: the preview

Labour has no excuses for not making serious advances into Tory territory.

By Ben Walker

It’s the last major test of public opinion before the general election – welcome to the 2024 May local elections.

In every corner of England, residents will have at least one vote, be it for a police and crime commissioner (PCC), a local or regional mayor, or a humble borough councillor. There will also be PCC elections in Wales, so technically this is not an English-only set of midterm (or rather, late-term) tests for Rishi Sunak. Of all the contests, the most important are the council elections: the unglamorous but crucial yardstick by which we can judge whether the Conservatives are in the doldrums in the marginals or not.

The London mayoral contest will occupy the minds of many, but I want to use this piece to focus on the contests that will really tell us something about the state of public opinion. London is not a marginal region for the general election. It has many suburban and middle-class boroughs that will see swings towards Labour. But this will not tell us whether the party is on course for a return to government. Labour’s performance in a council ward such as Dinnington in Rotherham, however, will. And it is fights such as these that I want you to pay most attention to.

There are, I must concede, at least three mayoral contests that do offer a guide to the direction of public opinion: the West Midlands (which doesn’t cover the whole of the West Mids, just Birmingham, the Black Country and its surrounds); Tees Valley (which covers the former Yorkshire locale of Cleveland, plus Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Stockton) and the North East.

The first two boast Conservative incumbents relatively popular with their residents. Andy Street enjoys impressive name recognition among West Midlands residents (as I noted following Redfield and Wilton polling). But positive numbers though these are, they aren’t overwhelming. Which leads one to fear that candidate-prompting polls may be overstating Street’s support.

Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, meanwhile, won a landslide victory in 2021 with 73 per cent of the vote in a region that little more than a decade ago was safe Labour territory.

In both of these regions, Labour needs to demonstrate healthy progress, so defeat in either will represent a setback. The power of popular local personalities is regularly overstated. Voters primarily vote for parties and the herd is moving against the government nationally. It would be a genuine surprise to see Tory incumbents cling on in formerly safe Labour locales. 

In the election for the expanded North East mayoralty (now encompassing all areas north of the Tyne as well as south), Jamie Driscoll is fighting his re-election campaign on a platform to the left of Labour’s (after he quit the party). The dramatic expansion of the north-east mayoral constituency, now covering County Durham and Sunderland, should reduce whatever incumbency bonus he has. Sunderland is not Newcastle. Nevertheless, any sign of Driscoll winning would be a knock to Labour’s ground game. Local personalities should not be throwing a party that is 20 points ahead nationally off course locally – in battleground seats, no less.

On the council elections, meanwhile, I would argue this is an arena in which the opposition also has no excuses. There are some 2,000 wards, comprising 2,700 council seats, up for grabs and Labour should be bullish about its prospective gains.

In terms of who’s defending what, I estimate* that 39 per cent are represented by the Conservatives to 39 per cent for Labour. Fourteen per cent are defended by the Liberal Democrats and 4 per cent by the Greens. Now in isolation this may not tell us much. But something to consider here is that these wards are disproportionately based in urban England, not rural areas. And so they are disproportionately concentrated in Labour’s former heartlands – now battlegrounds.

Many of these wards, almost two thirds, are being defended by councillors last elected in 2021 – in the wake of Boris Johnson’s “vaccine bounce” in the polls. What happened in those 2021 locals was a virtual repeat of the 2019 general election. And it was in that context that Keir Starmer considered resigning as Labour leader following the party’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election.

The Conservatives should brace for greater losses than any gains Labour could accrue. The important point to remember about council contests, and Labour’s own organisation locally, is that a significant number of voters vote differently. Labour is not as organised in a typical council ward as it is in a county constituency. Labour’s general election vote is primarily an anti-Conservative coalition vote. In locales in which Labour does not have a ground game but other parties do, those national Labour voters go looking elsewhere. In Suffolk last year, we saw the Greens receive enough anti-Conservative votes to oust Tory councillors across the board. Also in 2023, we saw the Conservatives collapse only to see their seats gained by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens almost equally.

In terms of where to look, I can point to many contests. To judge Labour’s recovery (or not) in Leave-voting England, I would keep an eye on the Rother Valley – that blotch of blue to the east of Sheffield. Here on the outskirts of Rotherham we saw Labour duly smashed by “Get Brexit done”, and in 2021 we saw a near repeat of that. There should be a lot less blue here if we want to be sure that Brexit voters are leaving the Conservatives.

The mood of mortgage-owning residents in commuter-belt England can be best gauged through the Home Counties districts surrounding London, as well as those locales that trail the West Coast Mainline. Milton Keynes, North Hertfordshire, Nuneaton and Wokingham all look like they will desert the Conservatives. But by how much and how damningly is yet to be seen.

Swindon and Rugby, too, are battleground boroughs to watch as we chart Labour’s advance in the commuterville.

For the Lib Dems, Dorset is a county that has long escaped them. Not even in the 1990s were they able to obtain majority control of the council, but on the ground it appears as if one last heave will take them over the line. The council is currently Conservative-run. But if one were a Tory MP sitting in the southern counties of England, how Dorset swings may be a healthy indicator as to how southern shire seats could swing. The Conservatives have in recent years benefited from Leave-voting public antipathy in the West Country to the loudly “Rejoin” tendency of the Liberal Democrats. Dorset may be the indication as to whether that antipathy has significantly subsided.

To finish, I must come to Bristol. Here is a city that may prove an early preview of what could come for the Labour Party in government. As I wrote earlier, the thing to remember about Labour’s vote is that it is a coalition of votes – primarily anti-Tory, which may find itself fractured and fraying once that Tory bogeyman is put away. In Bristol, the enduring strength of the Greens renders anti-Tory coalition voting for Labour null and void. Rather, Tory voters appear to be split on what to do in Green/Labour council fights. The Greens are bullish about gaining seats and maybe even commanding control of the council. Whether Labour’s vote in the city fractures further makes this an election worth watching. 

Narratives will understandably focus on the personality-driven mayoral clashes. But for the best guide to the battlegrounds that will shape the next general election, watch the council wards. 

*Council wards (ie, councillor constituencies) are regularly redrawn by the respective boundary commissions, meaning being sure of which party is defending what seat in what part of the borough is part modelling, part guesswork. We can only estimate in instances such as these.

I will be looking to publish a pre-local election forecast of what to expect and what the polls tell us through my Chart of the Day segment in Morning Call. Subscribe here.