Going to the polls

This year’s local elections in England and Wales encompass 5,600 seats in 168 councils. Labour is defending the largest number in both countries.

In England, the Conservatives are in second place; in Wales, Independent candidates continue to perform strongly, especially in rural areas.  

With most contests in England reprising those last held in 2018, context is the key to understanding and interpreting what might happen.

Four years ago, Labour and the Conservatives were neck and neck in opinion polls and local elections alike, a situation reflected in the relatively small number of seats and councils then changing hands. Labour then performed poorly in the 2019 and 2021 local contests, and its record in council by-elections does not tally with its current national poll leads. 

On the other hand, all bets may be off if the recent revelation of ‘partygate’ fines for the Prime Minister and Chancellor plays badly for the Conservatives on 5 May. 

The danger of the party bring caught in a pincer movement was graphically illustrated by two by-election results just before Easter. A ‘red wall’ seat in Durham was lost in a direct swing to Labour. In Surrey, it was the Liberal Democrats who took a previously safe Conservative seat in Communities Secretary Michael Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency.

London has always been something of an exception to the pattern of Labour electoral woes. It posted a near 50-year high in the number of councillors elected in 2018; the Conservatives, by contrast, fell back to their lowest total since the boroughs were created in 1964. 

Yet, although the Conservatives lost control of both Kingston upon Thames and Richmond upon Thames to the Liberal Democrats, Labour could make no headway in its own target councils.

Remedying that must be the party’s main goal in London this year, rather than simply increasing its majority in councils it already controls. 

England

4,359* seats in 146 local authorities comprising 32 London boroughs, 33 metropolitan boroughs, 21 unitary councils (including four new ‘county’ unitaries), and 60 shire districts.

 ConLabLib DemGreenInd/otherNo overall control
Current control466211--27
Seats being defended*1,4002,2265175216422

Wales

All 1,234 seats in 22 councils, all with boundary changes

 ConLabLib DemPlaid CymruInd/otherNo overall control
Current control17-1310
Seats being defended*19746259208308-

*accounting for boundary changes but not casual vacancies/defections

Wandsworth, long seen as a Conservative, low-council tax flagship, voted 75 per cent ‘remain’ in the EU referendum, with Labour capturing Putney in 2019 to register a clean sweep of all three parliamentary seats in the borough. 

The boundary changes here put Labour within touching distance of becoming the largest party, but, by the same token, few marginal wards appear to have been created.

“Context is the key to understanding and interpreting what might happen”

In Westminster, the Conservatives won more than twice as many seats as Labour in 2018, despite the narrowest-ever gap in the popular vote between the two major parties – less than 2 per cent.

If the new boundaries help to dampen this prevailing votes/seats imbalance, the outcome could be very tight indeed.

But it may not all be one-way traffic. The financial and other problems besetting Labour-held Croydon council have been well documented. Most of the party’s wards have hefty majorities, but a swing to the Conservatives of the order of 6 percentage points could put them back in control for the first time since 2010.  

To make the election even more intriguing, eight candidates are competing to be Croydon’s first directly elected mayor, following strong support for such a system at a referendum in October 2021. 

Labour retains its dominance in the metropolitan boroughs, with overall control in 28 out of 36 councils. 

However, the party has fallen back since 2018, registering seat losses in each of the past two years as voters deserted it in several of the so-called ‘red wall’ areas of the north and midlands.

All seats fall vacant in Birmingham, which has moved to a four-year electoral cycle, and in Bury, Rochdale and St Helens following boundary changes. It is in Bury where Labour’s majority seems most under threat, with localist groups making their presence felt last year. 

Elsewhere, Labour’s minimum ambition must be to replicate both the overall share of the vote it achieved and the seats it won back in 2018. This may not make for dramatic headlines, but would provide evidence that the party has put the electoral nightmare of the past two years behind it.

Sunderland will remain Labour, but the 17 seats won in 2018, rather than the 12 in 2019, must be the aim. The party habitually wins two-thirds of the seats in Coventry, but its vote share dropped by 10 percentage points between 2018 and 2021. 

The three Conservative-controlled boroughs – Dudley, Solihull, and Walsall – are all safe, but the Greens will want to consolidate their position as Solihull’s official opposition, as they habitually poll more than a fifth of the total vote.  

More than one in three of all Liberal Democrat metropolitan councillors are concentrated in just three authorities – Newcastle upon Tyne, Sheffield, and Stockport. The party controlled them all once, but is now condemned to opposition even in Stockport, where it remains the largest group. 

The most competitive unitary council elections look to be in Plymouth and Southampton. In the latter, Labour needs two gains for control, but has won neither of the pivotal wards since 2016.  

The Conservatives in Plymouth, who run the council as a minority, have been riven by internal disputes. Twelve out of 57 councillors now sit as Independents, with Labour just the largest party.  

The elections could help restore a degree of normality, but any Labour advance may be handicapped by its defending a relative high water mark from 2018. 

The new unitary authorities of Cumberland, North Yorkshire, Somerset, and Westmorland and Furness are holding inaugural elections prior to vesting in April 2023.  

North Yorkshire seems certain to fall into the Conservative column, but the Liberal Democrats have an outside chance in Somerset, which they held earlier this century and where they currently have by far the largest proportion of district councillors. 

The number of district councils with annual or biennial elections continues to shrink, partly as a result of the piecemeal creation of more county-wide unitaries and partly reflecting local choice, often aimed at saving costs. 

Of those with elections, many are mathematically safe from any change in control. However, in places such as Newcastle-under-Lyme (which has moved to all-out contests), Crawley, West Lancashire, and Worthing, Labour and the Conservatives go head to head in a traditional two-party battle. 

In Crawley, which had whole council elections in 2019 following boundary changes, the Conservatives are a single seat ahead of Labour, and the same margin short of overall control.  

There may be some surprise that Worthing is a now a council in play. Occasionally Liberal Democrat, but never Labour, in its near 50-year history of Conservative predominance, the two main parties are currently tied. 

Demographic change has helped Labour here and it could now become the largest party by winning the council leader’s Gaisford ward seat, as happened in both 2019 and 2021.  

The Liberal Democrats should retain control of the eight councils they are defending (including St Albans, where there are boundary changes) and, as in Somerset, could benefit from Conservative weakness in places such as Hart and Woking. 

Local elections are being held in Wales for the first time since 2017. All 22 councils are subject to boundary changes, though, in most cases, these are quite modest and unlikely on their own to have significant electoral repercussions. 

Despite them, Wales retains a number of very large four- and five-member wards, including Sketty in Swansea (five) and Grangetown in Cardiff (four). The other innovation is that 16- and 17-year-olds are able to vote for the first time, though this too may not have a big political impact.  

The Conservatives and various Independent groups polled comparatively strongly in Wales five years ago and Labour will now be looking to recover ground in councils such as Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil. The party fell back by more than 12 percentage points in Bridgend in 2017, losing control of the council and then of the eponymous parliamentary constituency at the 2019 General Election. 

In Cardiff, Labour’s majority control could be sacrificed if it lost the marginal and unchanged Canton ward to Plaid Cymru.   

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