The seats up for election at this year’s Local Elections were last up for election in 2019. It may be difficult to remember, but in May 2019, Labour and the Tories were both in freefall in the polls while The Brexit Party was rapidly ascending, and Change UK were rapidly going nowhere. Neither of the two new parties stood in the 2019 locals, and neither will be standing now. Such is the brutality of the UK’s electoral system. In 2019 the Tories collapsed and lost over 1000 seats, and Labour stuttered to a net 84-seat loss nationwide; the big winners were the Liberal Democrats, who gained 704 councillors and 10 councils. The Lib Dems, masters of the local elections, may well repeat their 2019 performance in Lib Dem/Tory areas across the South East, where they saw particular success, but 2019 is likely to remain their recent high water mark in the (increasingly few) Labour/Lib Dem marginals, such as those in Manchester.
Hopefully, these elections will help us answer some questions: Is Labour on track for a landslide at the next election? Can it get worse for the Tories? Where do the Green Party fit into this narrative? And where exactly are such places as “Barbegh”, “Dacorum”, and “Vale of White Horse”?
The name of the game with these local elections will be expectation management. In recent years the narrative that is set by the early declaring councils has been one of Labour underperformance, and this has set the tone for the reaction to the results – Friday and possibly even Saturday is when the Tories will haemorrhage seats if current polling is to be expected. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect:
- Metropolitan Boroughs: Labour needs to gain nine seats to take control of Wirral, one of three Metropolitan Boroughs with all its council seats up for election that is not currently under a Labour majority. Gaining Brighton & Hove from the current Green minority would also be a totemic sign, given worries about Starmer potentially alienating more left-wing and younger voters in favour of the Greens. A good night for Labour would also see them at least become the largest party in Bolton, where boundary changes mean every seat is up, as localist parties are on the decline. In Stockport, Labour might be able to wrestle largest party status from the Lib Dems, where they need a two-seat gain. Meanwhile, in Oldham, where the last two council leaders lost their seats at the last two elections, the current leader might also be in trouble in her ward of Royton South. Among the Metropolitan Boroughs with only a third up, Labour will look to make gains in Bury, Calderdale and Wakefield. Still, given that they already run most of these councils and their current polling lead, it is fair to say all the councils that fall into this category are “off the board” apart from Sheffield, where a gain of four seats would restore the Labour majority.
- Unitary Authorities: Labour could expect losses in Leicester as their decline in support with Hindu voters continues. Labour’s totemic council gain here would be Swindon, home to two crucial marginal constituencies, where Labour need to gain six seats to take control of the council for the first time since 2003. In Bath & North East Somerset, the Lib Dems will be looking to maintain control in a council where Labour came within 150 votes of the Conservatives in the 2021 Metro Mayor election. In South Gloucestershire, the Tories could lose their majority, although the most likely alternative to that is No Overall Control. In Cheshire East and Cheshire West & Chester, Labour will be looking to make gains and become the largest party in East and potentially take complete control in West. Labour must gain four seats to take a majority in perennial marginal Plymouth. Still, due to the division amongst local Tories, they should be able to form an administration regardless. In the Tees Valley, Labour must make gains across the councils, in an area of the country where the first rumblings of the collapse of the “Red Wall” came when Ben Houchen won the mayoral election in 2017 and went on to clear 70% of the vote in each council except Middlesbrough (where he “only” managed 68%), as they must also do in Stoke.
- District Authorities: Labour hopes to gain another swing council, Amber Valley in Derbyshire, as they will in West Lancashire and Great Yarmouth. Gains in the Kent districts of Dartford and Dover will also be a positive sign, as will gains in places like Crawley, Gravesham and the notably less southern areas of North East Derbyshire, Mansfield and Worcester. Labour will also target councils like Broxtowe, Medway and Thanet, although these may be more of a stretch.
- Tories Vs Lib Dems: Given both the ability of the Lib Dem machine to grind into gear on a hyper-local level and the incredibly high level of anti-Tory tactical voting we’ve seen this Parliament, there’s no reason to suspect the Lib Dems won’t repeat their 2019 southern success, where they gained control of councils like Hinckley & Bosworth and the equinely named Vale of White Horse. Expect a further Tory collapse in the southern district councils with names that have little bearing on Geography like Rushmoor, Spelthorne (currently home to two Breakthrough Party councillors), Rother, Babergh and the disappointingly Kennedy Family-free Boston.
- Hyperlocal parties and independents: From the stunning rise of the Ashfield Independents, who might manage a clean sweep of the borough, to a number of residents associations to everything in between, the coalition era collapse of the Lib Dems left a void for angry people who liked pointing at potholes. Political campaigning is often a question of resource allocation, and to give an example from my former home of Manchester, a former Lib Dem councillor later came within 12 votes of winning a safe Labour ward in 2019 and then snatched it in one of the last council by-elections before the pandemic in 2020 (he later resigned claiming the council didn’t actually exist but that is by the by).
- Northern Ireland: All 462 council seats across all 11 councils are up for election, and as in Scotland last year, they are elected by STV. At the time of the previous local elections, the Northern Ireland Assembly wasn’t sitting as Sinn Fein withdrew as a result of the Renewable Heating scandal and came within 10 seats of beating the DUP to become the largest party across the 11 councils. This time the assembly isn’t sitting as the DUP continue to sulk about the Northern Ireland Protocol. The recent trends of Northern Irish politics have been Sinn Fein staying roughly where they are (in contrast to their position in the other 26 counties), the DUP collapsing and the Alliance, who are neither unionist nor nationalist, continuing to gain ground on the two main parties, having conclusively become Northern Ireland’s third party following the decline of the UUP and the SDLP. In the months following the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional significance of the likely repetition of last year’s Assembly election results – that of an Irish nationalist, predominantly Catholic party topping the poll in a state designed in 1921 to have a permanent Protestant, unionist majority will again be shamefully under-discussed by the media and totally ignored by those in power in Westminster who may find themselves sleepwalking into another rising nationalist movement and border poll within the United Kingdom.
When all the votes are counted, Labour should have their best result in at least a decade and could be about to make their first four-figure net gain in terms of council numbers since 1995. If Labour can repeat its performance from last year’s local elections, they stand poised to form the next government. Exceed that performance, as they might, and the question at the next election is not whether Keir Starmer will be Prime Minister, but how powerful he will be.