Those who have been carefully studying the earlier instalments of local election analysis, will have noted that Labour will find it easier to make gains on seats last contested in 2017 (when they did very badly) than those where the previous elections were in 2016 (when Labour and the Conservatives were broadly neck and neck.) The county council elections come under the first category. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, and those for district councils, come under the second. That leaves us with the single tier councils, unitary authorities, and the metropolitan boroughs – these are the councils destined to be the dominant model for local government in the coming years.
Here it is difficult to give a sweeping prediction. First of all, because in some of them only a third of seats are up for elections. Secondly, because while most were last contested in 2016 – and thus will be challenging for Labour to improve upon – some are from 2017, so it would be hard for Labour to do any worse.
Demographic change adds to the uncertainty. Trafford is traditionally regarded as an important battleground between Labour and the Conservatives. Yet there is quite a substantial Labour lead there at present – 36 Labour councillors to 20 for the Conservatives. With only third of councillors up for election, the scope for dramatic change is limited. As the seats were last contested in 2016 there should be scope for Conservative gains. Trafford has become more middle class but not small business owners and the sort of middle class voter inclined to back the Tories. Instead, they are the secretariat middle class – university researchers, public sector administrators, and so forth – a category more likely to have socialist allegiances.
Brighter prospects for the Conservatives may be found in Dudley. Labour and the Conservatives have 36 seats each. Only a third of seats are being contested – and there are a couple of independents. But given this was last contested in 2016 it would be disappointing if the Conservatives did not gain overall control. Walsall Council is already narrowly in Conservative hands – the expectation will be to see the majority increased.
Plymouth may be tricky for the Conservatives due to local splits. The dispute, which has resulted in some councillors elected as Conservatives now sitting as independents, seems to concern speed limits. Labour hold a narrow lead on the Council at present and a third of the seats are up for election. They were last contested in 2016 – which should have given the Conservatives an opportunity. The close of nominations on April 8th may give a sense of the consequences of the infighting in terms of independent candidates standing.
Due to the extraordinary General Elections results in December 2019, we have some local authorities with Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. How effective have these new Conservative MPs been at building up a campaigning machine and talent spotting good council candidates? The “red wall” has already been breached. Will it now be demolished? Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:
“The 2017 local elections saw the Labour bastion Northumberland fall. Labour also lost a large number of seats in Durham – mostly to independents. Both those councils have all their councillors up for election again. So the test for Labour will be whether they can recover or whether the trend from the General election is confirmed.
“Sheffield may be difficult for Labour. In some places, they will be worried about the Green Party and the Lib Dems. But we also have wards in Sheffield, on the north western fringe, with a Conservative MP – Miriam Cates the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. So could we see the first Conservative councillors in Sheffield for a long time?
“Sandwell has Conservative MPs but no Conservative councillors. Rotherham has no Conservative councillors but part of it is represented by Alexander Stafford the MP for Rother Valley. Doncaster does already have a small number of Conservative councillors. Will they have more given that there is now Nick Fletcher as the Conservative MP for Don Valley?”
“The greatest interest will be in Black Country and South Yorkshire. These are places that would have be ignored in previous local elections due to being so monolithically Labour.”
Milton Keynes will be worth looking out for, as it is pretty evenly divided between the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems. Elsewhere the Lib Dems start from a generally weak position. They will be making an effort in Wokingham where they have made some quiet progress in the past.
One caveat to all the elections covered this week. I have tried to look at the state of the parties in current opinion polls as a clue to how they might perform, relative to the actual votes cast in the local elections of four and five years ago. But in local elections older people are more likely to vote. The Conservatives already had a big lead among older voters in 2016 and 2017. But there has been some polling suggesting that the Conservatives relative advantage in that group compared to the population generally has increased. That may be part of a continuing trend. Or it may be that the “vaccination bounce” has a greater impact among the old. It might give the Conservatives a bit of an extra edge – especially in places like Cornwall with a significant number of retired people.
Next week I will consider some of high profile contests for directly elected Mayors.