On 2nd May the two main parties face the first proper test of their electoral resilience in the wake of the Brexit mess. In England, 8374 seats are up for grabs, with a further 460 council seats in Northern Ireland being contested. There are no local elections in Wales, Scotland or London.
What’s up for grabs?
This time around voters in England will be electing councillors to:
- 33 metropolitan authorities, where a third of seats – 727 - are being contested
- 119 district councils where all seats (5063) are up for grabs
- A further 49 district councils where a third of seats are being fought (704)
- 30 unitaries contesting all seats (1595)
- And a further 17 unitaries where a third are contested (285)
There are also six mayoral contests.
It hardly needs saying that the political context for these elections is tough for the main parties. In the latest ComRes voting intention poll for The Telegraph, the combined vote share for the two main parties (at 64%) is the lowest since early 2015 - when UKIP were nipping at the heels of the Conservatives.
Earlier this week ComRes hosted a media briefing with elections expert Lord Hayward, out of which came 10 points to watch out for ahead of 2nd May:
1. Comparisons with 2015, the last time many of these seats were contested, is nigh-on impossible because of so many boundary changes.
2. That difficulty is further compounded by turnout: 2015 was a General Election year - which always boosts turnout - but we can expect it to be nearer the normal low 30%s this time around.
3. Opposition parties usually enjoy local election success and Governing parties get hammered, but that pattern has broken down: the Conservatives have had more councillors than Labour continuously since 2002 and there seems little prospect of that being up-ended any time soon.
4. Despite Jeremy Corbyn trumpeting the Labour Party’s ‘success’ in the Newport West by-election, there was a 2.4% swing from Labour to the Conservatives. And that result was despite Labour having been in Opposition for almost nine years and a governing party more divided than anyone can remember…suggesting that, if there is an upset on 2nd May, it will be to the detriment of one or (more likely) both main parties.
5. If Britain has not left the EU by 2nd May, Conservative voters will likely punish the Party by voting for outsider candidates or staying away altogether – and perhaps Labour voters will go the same way too if that Party has its fingerprints on Brexit failure.
6. That said, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal on Friday, it will go some way to satisfying the 60% of Conservative voters who have consistently expressed their desire for that outcome.
7. Labour are not contesting almost one in four council seats. That said, they are nonetheless contesting 77% of seats, up from 74.9% in 2015 and 71.9% in 2011. Even so, with a claimed half a million members, 77% seems modest.
8. Despite stories of Tory activists tearing up their membership cards in disgust over Brexit, the Party is fielding candidates for 96% of local election seats, compared to 92.8% in 2015 and 93.4% in 2011. UKIP is fielding candidates in only 16% of seats, down from 43.8% in 2015. The Brexit Party is fielding candidates in a smattering of seats across the country.
9. Eyes will be on the Lib Dems to see whether there are signs of revival. The Lib Dems suffered the second largest loss in 2015 (415 seats) and a good night would create a positive context for the Party’s leadership contest in the wake of Sir Vince Cable’s departure.
10. Postal votes may prove crucial: typically postal ballots are sent out 10 days or so ahead of polling day and most are returned very promptly. That would mean the results declared on 3 May will inevitably reflect events, especially re Brexit, over the Easter period.
The local elections are a double-edged sword for Theresa May. On the plus side it could give her credibility and a desperately-needed fillip if the Party does less badly than feared, and could also serve as a helpful bellwether for an early General Election (which we believe is unlikely).
On the other hand, it provides more than 8,000 opportunities for voters to give the Conservatives – and possibly Labour - a kicking for their (mis)handling of Brexit. The omens are not good for the major parties.