What do Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, East Riding, Herefordshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, and Wiltshire have in common? They all have unitary local authorities that are not having elections this year. They are also areas which have a high representation of Conservative MPs. Cornwall, for example, has six MPs – all of them Conservative. In some other parts of the country, where district councils still survive, the pattern is more complicated. Six districts in Surrey go to the polls, five other districts miss out. Where district councils are up for election this year, only a third of seats are being contested in most cases.
By contrast, we have full council elections in London, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland. These are areas where Conservative MPs found themselves very much in the minority after the last General Election, despite the overall result being such a success.
It just so happens that the electoral cycle this year means that voting will not tend to be in natural Conservative territory. That should give a slight note of caution to the prevailing narrative about the prospect of leadership challenges to the Prime Minister. It has been suggested that if Conservative MPs see severe losses in council seats in their areas they will conclude a change is needed. The human element will kick in. Rather than reading about opinion polls or focus groups, it is something they will have seen for themselves – anger while canvassing on the doorstep; councillors they have fought alongside suffering defeat. But in Wiltshire – where all seven MPs are Conservatives – that will not happen. As there are no elections.
Of course, the more politically astute Conservative MPs would still be concerned by a real drubbing in the council elections elsewhere. I’m afraid it is true that often the opportunity is used to send a message about national issues. So it would be naive for a Conservative MP to imagine their own patch would have been different.
There will still be plenty of Tory MPs that will be seeing elections in their areas. 21 of the 73 constituencies in London have a Tory MP – a minority, but hardly a trivial number. Wales has 14 Conservative MPs out of 40. Scotland has six out of 59. Elsewhere voting (for a third of the seats) will take place in some metropolitan boroughs that are Conservative-run – Dudley, Solihull, and Walsall. Other Conservative unitary authorities electing in thirds include North East Lincolnshire, Southampton, Swindon, Thurrock, and Wokingham.
Then we have the Conservative district councils. Gosport, Harrogate, Huntingdonshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme have all their seats up for election. Adur, Fareham and Nuneaton and Bedworth have half the seats up. Many more have a third of seats up – across assorted Conservative heartlands in Kent, Essex, Surrey, Hampshire, Staffordshire and elsewhere.
We also have county council elections in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. These were due to take place last year but were held over as those authorities are in the process of becoming unitaries.
Constituency boundaries do not tend to neatly fit in with local authority ones. So that complicates matters. But it should be noted that most of the 181 district councils in England have no elections at all this year.
Another consideration: in the event of the results being as dire as foretold, who was making the commensurate gains? Will Conservative retreat equate to Labour advance? Perhaps not. Conservative MPs might be consoled if the victors are a hodge podge of independents and residents’ protest groups.
Then what of historical comparisons? Most of the seats coming up for election in England were last fought in 2018. Those were a rather dull set of elections. There were some modest Labour and Lib Dem gains, very modest Conservative losses, and a wipeout for UKIP. They were consistent with the opinion polling at the time which had Labour and the Conservatives roughly level pegging. It was the following year, 2019, that saw really substantial Conservative losses – with the Lib Dems being the beneficiaries.
Generally, the Conservatives have had an astonishingly long run of electoral success in local government. William Hague’s leadership is sometimes looked back on as a fruitless period, as the 2001 General Election was essentially a repeat of the Labour landslide that took place in 1997. But the Hague era saw Conservatives advance in council elections and that pattern has generally continued. That might increase the shock factor this year if there are a large number of Tory losses.
With the council elections over three months away, it is a bit soon to make predictions with much confidence. Though Labour’s poll lead is in double figures at present it may well slip back. The Conservatives may also do rather better at the ballot box than the polling suggests. That has happened before. I have spoken to several leaders of Conservative Groups on local authorities who are bullish about their prospects – in private as well as in public. But even if the current anger persists and the Conservatives do take a battering, the timing could have been much worse. Most Conservative MPs either have no elections in their constituencies or only for a minority of their councillors, often in a minority of the wards.