When the dust settles from the election results on Friday, how should we sift the claims and counter-claims of rival politicians as to what they mean? Here are seven councils where the outcome will reveal the true strengths and weaknesses of the main parties.
The first is Wandsworth. Controlled by the Conservatives since 1978, Wandsworth has been the Tory’s flagship borough ever since it decided in 1990 that it didn’t need to levy the poll tax locally, and defied a big national swing to Labour in that year’s local elections. Recently, however, the area has been drifting left, politically. All three of the borough’s MPs are now Labour, including Fleur Anderson in Putney, which was the only seat the party gained from the Tories in 2019. The real doubt this time is whether Labour will scrape in, or win comfortably. A Tory victory this time would be as big a sensation as it was 32 years ago.
Barnet was a Labour target last time, in 2018. Instead, the Conservatives increased their majority on the 63-seat council from one to 13. Labour suffered here more than anyone else from the controversies over antisemitism and Jeremy Corbyn. A Labour victory this time would be the best evidence that the party has put these troubles behind it.
The basic outcome in Wakefield is not in doubt: Labour will hold the council, as it has done over since its creation in 1973. The voting figures will, however, indicate whether the Conservatives are holding on to their gains in “red wall” England. Imran Ahmad Khan, who captured the parliamentary seat from Labour in 2019 with a majority of 3,358 has resigned, after his conviction for assault. If Labour wins a clear lead in the wards that make up the parliamentary seat, it could signal a Labour gain in the coming byelection – and the chance of other red wall gains at the next general election.
Worthing illustrates one of the demographic and social trends across parts of southern England: the influx of younger, often professional, families with liberal values looking to buy houses they can afford. Labour used to regard such places as hopeless. As recently as 2016, the party had no councillors in Worthing. Now control of the council is within reach. After last year’s elections, Labour had 15 of the town’s 37 councillors. It has since gained an extra two, moving the council from a Conservative majority to no overall control. Labour needs two more gains for outright victory.
Portsmouth was a Labour city at the height of New Labour’s popularity, but in recent years the battle for control has been between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Following last year’s elections, the Conservatives had 16 councillors and the Lib Dems 15. Despite having fewer councillors, the Lib Dems have been running a minority administration. Twenty-two councillors are needed for an outright majority – just about possible for either party. But if one of them gains enough wards to come even close, this will tell us who is gaining ground in the contest between the Conservatives and Lib Dems in southern England.
Labour lost eight seats last year in Sheffield; as a result, the council slipped to no overall control. Three Labour gains would restore control in this 84-seat council – but as none of the 28 seats up for election this week are being defended by the Conservatives, Labour’s battle is with the Lib Dems (who emerged from last year’s election with 29 councillors) and the Greens (13).
The council, then, is a testbed for the battle among the left and centre-left parties to dominate the anti-Conservative vote. Keir Starmer will be hoping that his attempts to win back older red wall voters by tacking right on Europe and immigration won’t offend the younger and more liberal-minded voters he also needs in major cities such as Sheffield.
Sheffield is of special interest to the Greens. For the past year they have shared power with Labour. Will they be rewarded for the role they have played – or punished, as Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems were nationally when they entered into coalition with the Conservatives?
Scotland’s council elections this week differ from England’s in two ways. They were last fought in 2017 rather than 2018; and seats are allocated by a proportional system, the single transferable vote. This means that few council are won outright. Historically, Glasgow was a Labour city, but the SNP just came top in 2012 and extended its lead in 2017 to 11% in the vote, and won 39 (out of 85) seats, to Labour’s 31. A good result for Labour would be to overtake the Conservatives across Scotland as a whole, and to regain first place from the SNP in Glasgow.
Taking Britain as a whole, an average of recent opinion polls puts Labour six points ahead of the Conservatives. Historically, Conservative governments have stumbled in midterm and recovered strongly as the following general election approaches. If that happens again, then Labour has nothing like the lead it needs to be odds-on to win the next general election.
Strategists from all the parties will be waiting eagerly for the projected national share of this week’s votes – initially from the BBC, followed by the fuller analysis by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Nuffield College, Oxford. Will they suggest that Labour is outperforming its poll rating – or that the Conservatives are beginning to put their recent woes behind them?
The bigger question, which we must wait to answer, is whether history will in fact repeat itself and hand the next general election to the Conservatives – or will things be different this time, and enable Labour to hang on to whatever lead the voters give the party this week?