Local elections: What to watch out for this week

On Thursday, local elections will be held for councils and mayors in England, and 39 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. Around 2,600 councillors are up for election in 107 councils – far fewer than the 8,500 councillors elected in last year’s local elections. There are no elections in Scotland.  

Most of these seats were last contested in 2021, when the Covid vaccine rollout helped Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to make gains from Labour, who were still recovering from the Corbyn era. Both are managing expectations. The Conservatives will exaggerate expected losses and Labour will downplay expected gains. Election experts Rallings and Thrasher – who correctly predicted the Conservatives’ 1,000 losses last year – have suggested that if the Conservatives perform at a similar level to last year, they face up to 500 losses, with Labour making up to 300 gains, and advances for the Liberal Democrats and Greens.  

Overview of landscape

  • The Conservatives will suffer losses but fewer than last year because fewer seats are being contested.
  • The powers of local authorities and regional mayors are limited compared to other countries. Changes in local leadership are unlikely to mean immediate or fundamental shifts in policy. But businesses operating in some areas will need to adjust their engagement to reflect new priorities.
  • The main interest is what these elections will mean for the forthcoming general election. Turnout will be low and local elections are not always a reliable guide to national results. But they are likely to paint the same picture as opinion polls and recent by-elections: without an unprecedented political recovery, the Conservatives face defeat and Labour is very likely to form the next government. They are unlikely to affect Labour’s strategy for the general election.
  • Conservative MPs are expecting poor results, but Sunak could face a leadership challenge if they are even worse than anticipated. While Sunak would almost certainly prevail, this would damage his authority further and entrench perceptions of Conservative disunity. Heavy losses would also damage Conservative activist morale ahead of the general election. 

Key election battlegrounds

As important as the overall results will be performance in key parliamentary battlegrounds. In the South East and East of England, Labour will look to make gains in areas such as Basildon, Harlow, Hastings, Milton Keynes and Thurrock. In the West Midlands, Cannock Chase, Dudley, Redditch, Tamworth and Worcester are key Labour targets. In the North West, attention will be on Hyndburn and Pendle, although winning majorities in Bolton and Burnley may prove easier for Labour. The Liberal Democrats hope to gain or further consolidate their control of councils in Conservative heartlands, such as Wokingham and Cheltenham, to show their reach into the Blue Wall and put pressure on sitting Conservative MPs ahead of the general election. Given the unusual circumstances in the recent Rochdale by-election, the elections will be the first big test of the impact of the Israel/Hamas conflict among Labour’s Muslim voters. Defensively, Labour will watch results in Bristol – the Greens’ top target.

Mayoral races

Few of the mayoral elections will be competitive. Labour incumbents in Manchester, Liverpool, South Yorkshire, and West Yorkshire should win comfortably. Labour victory in the North East is also likely, although Kim McGuinness needs to defeat the Independent North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, who was blocked from standing as Labour’s candidate again.  

In London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan remains the favourite, despite his campaign maintaining that it will be a tight race. They point to a closer than expected result in 2021, a change in the electoral system, the introduction of voter ID requirements, and a loss of support among Muslim voters. But Khan is expected to win a third term against the relatively unknown Conservative candidate, Susan Hall. 

The three most significant races will be the East Midlands, West Midlands, and Tees Valley. The Conservatives chose to launch their overall local election campaign in the East Midlands. Conservative MP Ben Bradley faces former Labour MP and minister Claire Ward. This mayoral role is new, and there has been little dedicated polling, other than some suggesting that most voters were not aware the election was happening. Ward is the bookmakers’ favourite.  

Labour chose to launch its local election campaign in the West Midlands. Conservative incumbent Andy Street has established a reputation as an independent-minded mayor and has a well-funded campaign. Polls suggest the contest is too close to call. Labour’s candidate, Richard Parker, is a former PWC partner. He is moderate, with limited political experience.   

Tees Valley will be a bigger challenge for Labour. The Conservative incumbent, Ben Houchen, won in 2021 with almost 73% of the vote. In recent months, Houchen has faced allegations of financial mismanagement at the Teesworks freeport. Victory for Labour’s Chris McEwan would require a bigger swing than national opinion polls imply, but the region has shown volatility in its voting patterns. Labour is prioritising this contest, but does not want the result to become a litmus test.  

Labour’s new mayors will be more inclined to work with Starmer’s UK leadership than some existing Labour mayors. They will also want to establish themselves as spokespeople for their areas, capable of attracting foreign investment and driving economic growth. But they will find it more difficult to blame central government for local difficulties if Labour is in power nationally. Their own political significance would also recede if Labour was in power in Westminster.

National consequences

Sunak will be helped by low expectations. But losing high-profile mayoralties to Labour, evidence of Reform eroding the Conservative vote, and a squeeze from the Liberal Democrats could tip enough Conservative MPs into thinking there is little to be lost from a leadership challenge. Several leadership campaigns have started quietly to develop in anticipation of Sunak departing after the general election. But there is no one clamouring to lead the Party to an expected defeat this year, nor an obvious candidate who could unite it. Conservative MPs may conclude that changing the leader for the third time in a Parliament will simply entrench voter perceptions of disunity and instability. If Conservative MPs do muster enough letters of no confidence to precipitate a leadership contest, Sunak would almost certainly prevail. But it would be a blow to his authority and ability to control the agenda. There is speculation that a leadership challenge could prompt a general election before the summer. The Prime Minister will keep his options open. But the idea of a summer election is currently better seen as a party management tool than an attractive option for Sunak. 

Better than expected results for the Conservatives – like wins for Street or Houchen – would be seized on as evidence that Labour has not ‘sealed the deal’ with voters. But Labour is reluctant to spend money on local campaigns at this stage.  It typically performs less well in local elections than general elections, when the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents get squeezed. Granular results data will help Labour focus the targeting of key seats and refine its messaging. Labour is sharpening its retail political offer for the general election, but its safety-first strategy is unlikely to change.

James Kilmartin is a Partner based in London. He is a former adviser to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and has worked on several election campaigns having also participated in previous pre-election access talks between Labour and the civil service. Siôn Simon is a Specialist Partner and was a Labour MEP, MP, Metro Mayor candidate and a Minister in the last Labour government. You can contact the authors to find out more about our analysis and how Labour’s employment and trade union reforms may affect you. 

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