Going to the polls

This year’s local elections in England encompass more than 8,000 seats in 230 councils, with 49 of them having undergone a boundary review. 

Very nearly half of all councillors face re-election, with about 70 per cent of the English electorate having the opportunity to vote. 

The Conservatives currently have about 1,300 more councillors than Labour, but that advantage will be observed closely on 4 May – not least because any significant change could possibly have implications for the LGA’s political leadership.

In most cases, the elections reprise contests last held in 2019.  

At that election, both Labour and the Conservatives lost ground – though Labour’s net loss of fewer than 100 seats and control of five councils paled into insignificance compared with Conservative losses of 1,300 and 47 respectively.

The evidence of opinion polls and recent local by-elections alike is that a clear swing to Labour is to be expected this time. 

The Liberal Democrats and Greens have also registered consistent gains in recent local elections, and the rise of Independents and localist groups is indicative of a politics where mainstream parties are often seen as insufficiently engaged with local concerns. 

As always, too, there will be results against the run of play, where incumbent administrations of whatever stripe have managed to upset their electorate. 

An additional and unique factor this year is that HM King Charles III’s Coronation, on the Saturday following polling day, may dampen – for good or ill – media coverage of election post-mortems. 

The elections in the metropolitan boroughs will mark a further unravelling of their once common electoral cycle. 

Liverpool and Wirral are joining the ranks of those with four-yearly whole council contests, leaving 30 of the 36 boroughs with the traditional pattern of election by thirds. 

In Wirral and in Bolton, where boundary changes mean that every seat falls vacant as a one-off, Labour will be hoping to seize overall control. 

In Stockport, where new boundaries also come into effect, Labour and the Liberal Democrats effectively go head to head in a council that has been ‘hung’ for more than a decade. 

In all three cases, though, recent successes for Greens and Independents suggest that the arithmetic could be complicated.  

“As always, there will be results against the run of play

The scope for radical change is much reduced in places where a third of the council falls vacant, but the only three Conservative-controlled boroughs (all in the West Midlands) will repay attention. 

The party currently enjoys solid majorities in both Dudley and Walsall, but Labour now needs to make clear inroads if it is to claim that the marginal parliamentary seats there are within its grasp.   

In Solihull, the Greens are the official opposition. However, at recent local elections they haven’t managed to widen their base of support and break down some very large Conservative majorities in individual wards. 

Much attention in the unitary councils will focus on the so-called ‘red wall’. 

Five years ago, Labour controlled four of the five councils in the Tees Valley and was the largest party in the remaining one. All were lost in 2019, with Independents performing particularly strongly.  

“HM King Charles III’s coronation may dampen – for good or ill – media coverage of election post-mortems”

It would be of symbolic significance for Labour to regain Middlesbrough, for example, especially if that is allied with defeat for the Independent mayor, who won with an absolute majority of the vote last time. 

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was present at a campaign event in Darlington – adjacent to his own North Yorkshire constituency, and the one Tees council where the Conservatives are the largest party and form the administration. 

There is interest at the other end of the country, too. 

Kent had several Labour-controlled councils during the Blair years. It now has none. 

Medway, though, could switch straight to Labour, with nine Conservative seats vulnerable to a 3 per cent swing since 2019. 

Among the unitary councils with elections by thirds, it is no coincidence that Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer chose to launch Labour’s campaign in Swindon. 

The Conservatives currently have a majority of 11, but would see that sink to a single seat if last year’s results, when Labour won 12 seats to the Conservatives’ seven, are repeated. 

A further gain for Labour, on a swing of nearly 10 per cent since 2019, would lead to a change in control.

Plymouth is another council where elections tend to be dominated by the two main parties. 

The Conservatives who, like the Government nationally, have had three leaders in the past three years, run the council as a minority, with Labour as the largest party. No fewer than seven councillors now also sit with a label other than that on which they were elected.  

Labour needs four gains and a better performance than last year to get over the line. Starmer also called in here on his tour of the South West. 

Districts make up the bulk of councils with elections this year. In 2019, the Conservatives were rocked by a surge in support for Independents and local party candidates in some rural areas, where they had effectively run a one-party state. 

In East Devon, North Kesteven and Uttlesford, control flipped directly and the Conservatives must now try to rebuild. They can take some heart from a local by-election gain from the Residents’ group in Uttlesford earlier this year. 

There will be a more traditional contest in North East Derbyshire, the only council the Conservatives won straight from Labour in 2019. 

The Conservatives built up some impressive majorities in individual wards last time, but Labour will be keen to regain a district where it had been at least the largest party for nearly half a century. 

In neighbouring Bolsover, another former coal mining area, by-elections have restored Labour’s overall majority, but a clear victory here would be significant as the party looks to win back the eponymous constituency too at the next General Election. 

Further south, Kent is again in the spotlight, with Gravesham on a knife edge between Labour and the Conservatives.  

Conservative control of Great Yarmouth is vulnerable to just a 2 per cent swing to Labour since 2019. A bad result for Labour could see Crawley, gained only last year, slip from the party’s grasp. 

When the Liberal Democrats were in their local government pomp at the turn of the century, much of their progress was made through a ripple effect, whereby their support spread outwards from a particular ward or authority. 

That tactic seems to have been resurrected: after convincing majorities in South Cambridgeshire and St Albans last year, they now have their eyes on East Cambridgeshire and Dacorum in Hertfordshire. 

A similar pattern is potentially in play in Surrey, too, where the Liberal Democrats control Mole Valley and Woking – although the strength of Independents in both Guildford and Waverley could prove an obstacle to their winning outright majorities. 

There are just a handful of districts where the number of Green councillors reaches double figures. In Mid Suffolk in 2019, the Greens polled nearly a third of the vote and are well placed to become the largest party. 

England local elections 2023

8,057*seats in 230 councils (49 with boundary changes) comprising 32 metropolitan boroughs, 46 unitary councils and 152 shire districts.

ConservativeLabourLiberal DemocratInd/otherNo overall control
Current control855016574
Seats being defended*3,3652,1311,2231,338
England local elections 2023
*accounting for boundary changes but not casual vacancies/defections

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