James Blagden is the Chief Data Analyst and the Head of Future Politics at the Onward think tank.
Will the local elections on May 5th be make or break for Boris Johnson? Local election results always come with caveats, but the outcome can give us a sense of what voters in key electoral battlegrounds are feeling about the main parties. We will get to see how the Conservatives are faring in the Red Wall and where Labour is making a comeback.
What should we look out for? First, there are a few newly-Conservative councils to keep an eye on.
The Black Country
In Walsall and Dudley, the Conservatives gained majority control of the councils in 2021. Onward’s recent paper, Another Brick in the Wall, showed how parts of the Black Country (among other areas) have shifted towards the Conservatives over the last decade, signalling the fall of the Red Wall in 2019.
In 2018, the Conservatives won 14 Dudley wards to Labour’s 10. And in Walsall, the Conservatives also pipped Labour to the post, winning 30 seats to Labour’s 26. These will be hotly contested and, for the Conservatives, are more defensive elections than elsewhere in England.
But, while Wolverhampton gained two new Tory MPs in 2019, the council is majority Labour (Labour 44 / Conservative 16). All the wards that the Conservatives won in 2021 are in these two seats: Wolverhampton North East and Wolverhampton South West.
A third of the council is up for election this time. But the Conservatives are only defending three seats, all in the south west, and all consistently Tory. There simply isn’t much scope for losses here. But, given the eight wards they won in 2021, we will be able to tell whether the Conservatives can keep up the recent momentum in the north of the borough.
Two Red Wall towns to watch out for: Grimsby and Hartlepool.
Both have new Conservative MPs, target seats for the party in the wake of post-Brexit realignment. And both are at the top of the list for Levelling Up funds. The Conservatives will need to demonstrate that the faith voters put in them in 2019 was not misplaced.
Just as we have seen in the Westminster elections, the wards in the Great Grimsby constituency have begun to turn towards the Conservatives in recent years. This reversal, for a town that hadn’t returned a Tory MP since 1935, is so pronounced that Labour failed to win any wards in the 2021 local elections; Conservatives won six out of eight.
The Hartlepool by-election win last year gave a welcome boost to the Prime Minister’s image. On the same day, the Conservatives also became the largest party on the local council, although they just missed out on gaining overall control. Things were looking up for the Conservatives’ prospects in Hartlepool but, following partygate and Labour’s lead in the national polls, the local elections will be a key test of how well Conservative support holds up in the area.
The borough of Wakefield in West Yorkshire is another one to watch because the council boundaries cover the constituencies of Wakefield and Hemsworth.
Firstly, Wakefield. The real test will come at the by-election, expected later this year. But the local elections might provide a sneak preview of the outcome. The borough council is currently a solid Labour majority and that won’t change. And Labour are defending 16 seats compared to the Conservatives’ five. But those five are mostly located in the Wakefield constituency, so a poor performance might indicate local disaffection with either the outgoing MP or the party more broadly.
Second, although the Conservatives have never held the Hemsworth constituency before, they came close in 2019, missing out by 1,180 votes. In the 2021 local elections, Conservatives won three out of six Hemsworth wards. Our analysis shows that political realignment is nudging the area towards the Tories, especially since the Brexit referendum, and we will be looking to the ward results in Hemsworth for an indication of whether the Conservatives are making further inroads into the Red Wall.
On the other side we have a traditionally Tory town that shows signs of drifting away from the party.
Even when Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997, the south coast seaside town of Worthing stayed resolutely blue. At the local and national level, Labour historically had a poor record in Worthing. Occasionally the Liberal Democrats will flair up and the Conservatives lose majority control of the council (as happened between 2002 and 2004). But the area was usually solidly Tory.
However, steadily, over the last few years Labour have gained ground in the town – from holding no seats at all in 2016, to 17 seats as of 2021. In fact, the Conservatives and Labour are tied on 17 seats each (with two Lib Dems and one independent). This time round, the Conservatives are defending eight seats. Labour are only defending four. So Labour only need to pick up two additional seats in order to take majority control of the council for the first time ever.
Another traditionally Conservative area to watch is the market town of Altrincham, in Trafford. Trafford Council is majority Labour, unsurprising for Greater Manchester, but the interesting part is in the south. Altrincham and Sale West has always been a Conservative constituency, but the Tories have been losing ground to the Green Party in recent local elections. There are now three Green councillors in Altrincham – a ward that, as recently as 2016, had three Conservative councillors. This Conservative-to-Green swing is not widespread, but is definitely something to look out for on May 5th.
We see a similar Conservative decline at the General Elections. Where the country has become seven-points more Conservative since 2015, Altrincham and Sale West has gone in the other direction, becoming 5-points less Conservative.
Looking further ahead, the shifts we see in towns like Worthing and Altrincham could be a sign of what we call a ‘blue drift’. These places are mostly in the South of England (but not always). They used to be bastions of Conservatism, but are drifting towards Labour or the Liberal Democrats. It’s happening particularly in Sussex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire. For some, this is a post-Brexit reaction; for others, it is a long-term 30-year trend.
Finally, some words of warning. Local elections are not General Elections. Turnout is typically much lower and different issues motivate voters. Local concerns and personalities dominate over national policy. It is worth remembering that the proper comparison is with 2018, when these council seats in England were last contested. If we look back at that time, this was when Jeremy Corbyn and an embattled Theresa May were about neck-and-neck in the national polls – a far cry from the Conservatives’ 12-point lead in December 2019. So the change may not be as dramatic as some are expecting.
However, by watching these key battlegrounds we can gain some indication of how Conservative target voters – both traditional and new – feel about the party.