A quiet few weeks for by-elections provide an ideal opportunity, briefly, to look ahead to this year’s annual local contests.
One fly in the ointment is already apparent in their scheduling. The traditional first Thursday in May is now to be followed by a Friday bank holiday to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day in 1945.
With almost all councils facing police and crime commissioner elections as well, the scheduling of counts has become a bone of contention, with several likely to delay totting up the votes into the weekend – and maybe even beyond.
If that happens, the local results will struggle for media attention even more than usual.
Most of the seats falling vacant this time were last fought in 2016, seven weeks before the EU referendum outcome turned British politics on its head.
Both major parties registered a small decline in seats and councils controlled, with the Liberal Democrats being the main beneficiaries.
In truth, though, it was a rather humdrum election, with little indication of the turmoil to come. Our estimate of the national equivalent vote put Labour one point ahead of the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats beating UKIP into third place for the first time since 2012.
This year, Labour will be defending almost half the 2,700 seats falling vacant. However, evidence from December’s General Election, and subsequent polling, suggests they will do well to avoid losses in a set of contests largely concentrated in urban England, whoever becomes party leader. Certainly, the recent by-election result in Middlesbrough gives scant indication that the ‘red wall’ will be rebuilt any time soon.
Conservative strength in this cycle is somewhat exaggerated by the inaugural elections for the three new single-tier unitary councils – Buckinghamshire, North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. In each case, the existing county divisions have been retained but will elect three members each. In 2017, the Conservatives won 84 of the 106 seats in those then two counties.
In terms of total councillors, though, the abolition of two more sets of districts – together with the impact of boundary reviews elsewhere – means a further 163 reduction in the number of elected members. England now has 17,000 councillors compared with more than 18,000 just five years ago.
With the Government currently enjoying something of a honeymoon period, there is scope for the Conservatives to add councils and councillors to their tally – and, unusually, it may be the metropolitan boroughs where attention is focused. Having gained constituencies in a dozen boroughs before Christmas, the party will now hope to add significantly to the barely 110 metropolitan seats it is defending.
The third party of English local government, the Liberal Democrats, will still lack a permanent leader in May. They made strong gains in seats and council control last year, and, despite a disappointing General Election performance, will expect again to advance in more prosperous parts of the country where Brexit continues to be mourned.
|Derbyshire, Whaley Bridge|
LAB GAIN FROM CON
21.9% over Con
|East Staffordshire, Yoxall|
57% over Lab
|Hertsmere, Borehamwood Kenilworth|
CON GAIN FROM LAB
7.6% over Lab
|Huntingdonshire, St Ives East|
10.8% over Ind
|Middlesbrough, Coulby Newham|
29.2% over Lab
|Suffolk, Newmarket & Red Lodge|
32.5% over Lib Dem
|Thanet, Cliffsend & Pegwell|
22.2% over Green
|Warrington, Burtonwood & Winnick|
22.2% over Con
13.9% over Con
|West Suffolk, Newmarket North|
24.6% over Lib Dem