Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher set out the councils and seats being contested in this week’s local elections, where the main parties will be focusing their efforts, and what a good result would look like for each of them.
In the biggest test of opinion ahead of the general election expected in 2024, this week’s local contests in England will supply vital clues to whether Labour is on course to form the next government.
The party has a mountain to climb, requiring a swing larger than the post-war record set by Tony Blair in 1997 just to register the slimmest of overall parliamentary majorities.
Anything less than significant gains in a wide variety of councils across England will suggest that ambition remains out of reach.
Despite extensive ward boundary changes most seats being fought on Thursday reprise contests last held in May 2019. Then, Labour and the Conservatives did poorly. Each only received a 31%share in our Sunday Times national equivalent vote analysis. Each suffered a net loss of councillors and councils as Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents prospered from voters rejecting the party mainstream.
Then, just three weeks later, the two main parties limped in far behind the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats in the final European Parliament elections.
National equivalent vote at local elections, 2015-22
|Con %||Lab %||LD %||Ind/Oth %||UKIP %|
Labour, a long way ahead in national polls, and the Liberal Democrats have plenty of opportunities to inflict serious electoral damage on the Conservatives.
Seven in ten of England’s electors are eligible to vote. For the first time in England electors will require photo ID or a Voter Authority Certificate before voting at polling stations.
There are 230 councils with elections, involving just over 8,000 seats located in almost five thousand wards. This is the largest number of seats contested in any part of our electoral cycle. More than twenty-five thousand candidates are standing.
Most councils, 152, are selecting the whole council, meaning large-scale changes in seats and political control are possible.
Seats being contested on 4 May 2023
Source: Rallings and Thrasher.
In the 49 councils with boundary changes we have estimated where necessary which party would have won the seat in 2019 had those boundaries been in place at that election.
Councils with elections on 4 May 2023
Source: Press Association
Despite losing over a thousand seats in 2019 the Conservatives again defend the most seats. Using estimates for ward boundary changes in 49 local authorities, the Conservatives defend over three thousand seats. This is just under half of its national complement of councillors. Forty-two Conservative-controlled councils, more than half those it is defending, will be lost if the party loses five or fewer seats to its opponents. Widespread losses of seats and councils will lead to inevitable tensions within the party.
Although a swing to Labour looks inevitable this year, it is the scale and the geographical spread that are key. Labour tends to struggle to match poll ratings with actual votes in local elections, but the party needs to demonstrate that voters that deserted at the last general election are now returning. It is a sobering statistic for Labour that it was 2002 when it last held the honour of being the largest party in local government.
Post-industrial England is a crucial battleground.
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 strongly. The party’s pain was compounded as it lost Darlington, Redcar, and Stockton South to the Conservatives at the subsequent general election, and then Hartlepool too at a 2021 by-election.
Labour’s fightback means regaining control in Middlesbrough from a disparate grouping of Independent councillors, and depriving the Conservatives of effective control in Darlington.
In Derbyshire, pit villages have been superseded by new-build estates and distribution warehouses. North East Derbyshire was the only council in the country to flip directly from Labour to Conservative in 2019. Now a seven-point swing would reverse that outcome. Even Bolsover briefly fell out of Labour hands four years ago as a precursor to MP Dennis Skinner’s defenestration at the general election. Another Derbyshire council, Erewash, has been Conservative at both local and national level for some years. It is, however, precisely the kind of area Labour needs to win on the way to a parliamentary majority.
In Derby itself, all out elections give Labour a chance of taking control, thus raising the prospect of regaining the North constituency. The Reform party is fighting six seats here originally won under the UKIP label.
Labour has targets further south too.
Keir Starmer launched the party’s local election campaign in Swindon where the Conservative majority is vulnerable to a repeat of last year’s results. In Plymouth, the Conservative minority administration has been hit by defections and controversy over a tree cutting programme. Labour will make gains, but with only a third of the council up for election winning outright control is difficult.
In Kent the Conservatives currently hold 16 of the 17 constituencies. Back in 1997 Labour won eight of them. Addressing that imbalance could now begin at local level with councils in Medway, Dartford, Gravesham and even Dover in Labour’s sights. A single gain will give Labour a majority in Gravesham. In Medway boundary changes make exact comparison difficult but about seven gains would make Labour the largest party.
Elsewhere in southern England it is the Liberal Democrats who pose the greatest threat to the Conservatives. Two of the Cabinet’s ‘big beasts’ – Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt – together with former Deputy PM Dominic Raab have constituencies in Surrey which saw big swings to the Liberal Democrats at the last general election.
Raab’s majority in Esher & Walton sunk to less than 3,000 votes, but Independents have always been prominent in the local Elmbridge council. The Conservatives are also under pressure in Waverley which encompasses Hunt’s Surrey South West seat. Currently the largest party on the council, there are several wards where it looks as if opposition groups have made a tacit decision to stand aside in favour of whichever of them seems best placed to defeat the Conservatives.
In Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, the Liberal Democrats are attempting to revive their once successful tactic of spreading outwards from councils they already control. They won convincing majorities in South Cambridgeshire and St Albans last year, and now have their eyes on East Cambridgeshire and Dacorum in Hertfordshire.
The Greens, who have some 500 councillors across England, are contesting four in ten of all seats, an increase on four years ago. They have made gains from the Conservatives in local by-elections over the past two years and are well placed to win Mid Suffolk where they have been given a free run against the Conservatives in 11 of the 26 wards. But the party faces a challenge from Labour in Brighton & Hove.
The fate of Independents and a range of small locally based parties may yet be key to the outcome. These candidates defend one in ten of seats, sometimes in areas once dominated by Labour, other times in places that returned Conservatives. Should Labour convince voters that it has become a party capable of winning the next general election then a swing away from Independents would bring in many more council seats. But the Conservatives can mitigate seat losses to Labour and Liberal Democrats if it can re-gain territory lost to Independents in 2019.
So, what should we be looking for as the votes are counted on Friday. Given the current poll ratings for the two main parties we should expect Conservative losses and Labour gains. The Liberal Democrats will defy their lowly poll rating as usual and should advance against the Conservatives in parts of southern England. Labour needs a good performance given the scale of the task that awaits it at the next general election while the Conservatives might hope to reduce the loss of seats and councils to manageable proportions.
Benchmarking the results
1000+ losses A bad night with a third of all seats defended lost. Conservative MPs in marginal ‘red wall’ and southern seats will be worried.
750 losses A clear swing to Labour but rather less than opinion polls imply.
500 losses Will write off as ‘mid-term blues’ and will think Labour can be caught before the general election.
Fewer than 300 losses Council seats regained from Independents as Labour and Liberal Democrats fail to prosper.
700 gains + Best local election performance for at least a decade. On the way to becoming the largest party at Westminster even if short of an outright majority.
450 gains Results look little better than a year ago.
250 gains Disappointing in the context of the polls. Limited success in the crucial ‘red wall’.
Fewer than 150 gains Effectively a step backwards
150+ gains Eating into Conservative territory and could threaten in some marginal constituencies.
50-100 gains Comfortable enough in their own heartland but only modest progress elsewhere
Fewer than 50 gains Still struggling to pose a real threat to the Conservatives in southern England.
By Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, Associate Members, Nuffield College, Oxford (www.electionscentre.co.uk).
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