On Thursday, Brits will go to the polls to elect local councillors in some 230 councils across England. While these elections might not seem that important in and of themselves, unless you’re really into local politics, they’re a useful barometer for actual voter sentiment and for figuring out what voters really think about the major parties at this point in the election cycle.
Annual Local Elections in the UK
Every year on the first Thursday of May, the UK holds local elections to elect some of its local councillors. In England, councillors are elected by first past the post, with each council split into little electoral areas called divisions or wards. However, in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, they’re elected by a system called single transferable vote.
Across the UK, there are about 400 councils with around 20,000 councillors. These councillors are elected for four-year terms, and different councils stagger their voting differently. For example:
- Some councils put up all of their councillors for reelection once every four years.
- Some councils put up half their councillors for reelection every two years.
- Some councils put a third of their councillors up for an election every three years with no election in the fourth year.
This staggered voting system makes local elections quite confusing, and coverage is often patchy.
The Current Local Election Landscape
This year, there will be elections in England, but not in Scotland or Wales. The available councils are spread pretty evenly across the country, with 8,058 seats up for grabs across 230 of England’s 317 councils. Since councillors get four-year terms, most of these seats were last contested in 2019, which was a disastrous year for the Conservatives.
Assessing Party Popularity
Seat change is generally a bad metric for a party’s popularity and electoral appeal, especially if you’re mainly interested in what this means for the next general election. In 2019, Theresa May’s Conservative Party lost over 1,300 councillors and 44 councils, winning just 28% of the popular vote. She resigned just a few weeks later.
The Conservative Party’s Low Base
One of the reasons why counting councillors and seats is a bit redundant this year is because 2019 was a weird year for politics. Even if the Conservatives perform poorly on Thursday, they still might not lose too many councillors because they’re starting from such a low base.
The upcoming local elections are essential for gauging voter sentiment and party popularity. By examining the election results and the context in which they occur, we can better understand what these outcomes mean for the next general election.
Keep an eye on the local elections and their implications for the major parties as we move closer to the next election cycle.
Key Areas to Watch: Projected National Share
The main thing to look out for during the local elections is the projected national share. It takes the vote share at the local elections and transposes it onto the broader UK electorate.
For example, the Conservatives are more popular in England than the rest of the UK, so their projected national share will be lower than their actual vote share at these elections. Labour should be looking to achieve at least a 10-point lead here, ideally at least 15 points.
These projected national share numbers are important as they often indicate the chances of winning the general election. For instance, at the 1996 local elections, a year before the 1997 Labour landslide, Blair’s Labour had a 16-point lead over John Major’s Conservatives.
Similarly, at the 2009 local elections, a year before Cameron’s majority in 2010, the Conservatives won by 15 points.
For the Conservatives to have a chance at the next general election, they need to be, at worst, a couple of points behind Labour at the local elections.
This was the case in 1991 and 2014 when the Conservatives only lost by a couple of points in local elections and went on to win the general election the following year.
The Red Wall
The Red Wall refers to constituencies in the Midlands and North of England that historically voted Labour but switched to the Conservatives in recent years.
Starmer’s priority is winning back the Red Wall, and with Sunak polling worse than Johnson in these areas, it will be interesting to see whether these councils start moving back towards Labour.
The Blue Wall
Conversely, Sunak’s performance in rural southern England, known as the ‘Blue Wall,’ is also important to watch.
These areas used to vote squarely Conservative but switched to the Lib Dems when Boris Johnson took over.
Voter ID Impact
The 2022 Elections Act requires voters to bring photo ID to polling stations. These local elections will be the first time we see how this affects the result.
There is speculation about whether this will hurt young voters who cannot use their Oyster cards as ID, older people who are less likely to carry photo ID, or poor people who are less likely to have the required ID in the first place.
Minor Parties’ Performance
The Greens don’t usually show up in national-level polls, but they’ve made steady progress at local elections.
If this trend continues, it will provide them with a solid base going into the next general election, where they’ll aim to attract left-leaning Labour voters put off by Starmer’s move to the center.
It will also be interesting to see how the Reform Party performs and whether they can attract any voters from the right of the Conservatives who don’t like Sunak’s technocratic centrist vibes.
In conclusion, monitoring the projected national share, watching key areas like the Red Wall and Blue Wall, assessing the impact of the new Voter ID requirements, and observing the performance of minor parties will provide valuable insights into the upcoming local elections.
These results will shed light on voter sentiment and the electoral prospects of major parties as we approach the next general election.