The Battleground

This Thursday, voters go to the polls in local elections being held in many parts of the country. There are around 8,500 seats up for grabs across 248 councils in England. The last time most of these seats were contested was in 2015, the same day as the General Election that year, although there have been significant reorganisations and mergers of local authorities in some areas, with five ‘new’ councils being contested. In addition to council seats there will be five Directly-Elected Mayor contests, and one race for the new ‘Metro Mayor’ covering the combined authority area of ‘North of the Tyne.’

Outside of England, there are 500 seats being contested in 11 council areas in Northern Ireland, which elects councillors on a proportional representation system. Local elections are being held there for the first time since 2014 and a lot has happened since then. It will be interesting to see how the Brexit situation with so much talk and fear of a ‘hard border’ being created, together with the suspension of the NI Executive at Stormont, might affect results. The recent violence and the murder of Lyra McKee may also be on voters’ minds when they head to the polls.

But it is the much more extensive contest in England that will attract the most media attention, with commentators interpreting how the results affect the Government and main opposition parties.

The backdrop

Despite having the largest number of council candidates standing, the Conservative Party is bracing itself for a backlash at the polls. Local elections are, in theory, about local issues. However, they always provide voters with an opportunity to cast judgement on the national government of the day, and the continued Brexit ‘omnishambles’ at Westminster is likely to hit the core Conservative voter and activist base hard.

In addition, the last time most of these seats were fought was 2015, when the Conservative Party did surprisingly well, winning a General Election majority on the same day. Moreover, an awful lot of seats being contested across the country are District Councils in wealthier parts of the country where the Conservatives hold most of the seats already; they therefore start from a high base with potentially a lot to lose.

So, in normal political times you might expect Labour to be in position to make sweeping gains across the board. However, the current political situation is nowhere close to being normal.

Labour is, in many ways, as split as the Tories are on Brexit. There is also evidence that ‘peak Corbyn’ is now in the past and although he clearly continues to motivate those on the Momentum political left of the party, together with many younger voters, his ambiguity on Brexit has turned off some of the support he generated in 2017. Many more centrist voters simply will not back the party while he is leader. As a result, recent council by-elections, and the parliamentary by-election in Newport West, have not being showing big swings to Labour.

The Lib Dems remain lacklustre and largely anonymous nationally, although it is worth noting they have made gains in council by-elections since 2017, which suggests they might finally make a post-Coalition Government comeback this year and start to rebuild their councillor base. UKIP is now a fringe party and it seems unlikely to be in a position to make gains. Neither the Brexit Party nor Change UK have got their act together to stand many, if any, candidates on their tickets in time for 2 May, both seemingly focused on the European Parliamentary Elections on 23r May. The Greens have been making solid advances in terms of votes cast over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if they can covert those votes into seats. And a ‘plague on all your houses’ attitude might even lead to independent candidates doing better than usual.

What does this mean?

Overall, we are likely to see a very low turnout across the country, with a lot of the hitherto Conservative and Labour base vote deciding to stay at home. However, while public support is waning for both sides, there is not that equality in activist enthusiasm. Peak Corbyn may have been reached but Labour still has a large and committed activist base who will be motivated to get out on the streets and win this set of elections. In contrast, the Tory activist base is in turmoil with many members refusing to campaign or, in some cases, even vote Conservative. This lack of dedicated campaign manpower is likely to have impact on outcomes in many marginal seats.

With the Conservatives starting from a high base, and with many councils held by just a handful of seats, it is probable this will still end up being their worst set of local election results since 1994. Labour will probably make solid but not spectacular gains, with the Lib Dems perhaps being the biggest winner in terms of seats won, thanks to the type of seats being contested this year. Look out also for UKIP losing most of the seats they won four years ago, when they were riding high in the polls.

Picture credit: Derby Telegraph.