Three weeks until polling day
This week's highlights
With polling day drawing closer, the stakes are rising in a set of local elections which will likely be seen as a verdict on Sunak’s premiership. The Tories are widely predicted to lose seats, but just how badly they lose will set the tone going into the next general election.
Labour have so far chosen to focus on the Government’s national failures on issues like crime and the cost of living crisis. Last week the opposition party launched a controversial new ad campaign, which has provoked backlash from across the political spectrum. The first in a series of ‘attack ads’, which has been viewed more than 21 million times on Twitter, draws attention to the Tories’ poor track record on crime, and features a photograph of the Prime Minister alongside ‘Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t’.
Despite criticism, Labour officials have doubled down on their messaging, with one source telling Sky News ‘It’s mission accomplished – we’ve dominated the news agenda and started a serious conversation about the Tories appalling record on crime’. Labour’s latest advert criticises Sunak’s wife’s non-dom tax status, and the party apparently plans to continue to focus its messaging on the cost of living crisis and crime.
In a letter to his top team, Keir Starmer said that in the run up to 4 May the party will ‘continue to focus relentlessly on exposing the failures of 13 years of this divided and weak Conservative government and demonstrate how we would deliver for working people across the country’. The more aggressive approach could be a response to recent polling which reveals that Labour has the narrowest lead since Sunak has become Prime Minister; while the party still sits a comfortable 14 points ahead, senior Labour figures likely believe they cannot afford to be complacent.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are still going into the elections fighting, as they plan on fielding their highest proportion of candidates since 2007. Lib Dem candidates are planning to stand in 60% of contested seats in England and Wales (up 7% percentage points from 2019), whilst the Tories – who have always aimed to run full slates of candidates where possible – are down by 3% to 93%. This reduction in Tory candidates could signify that the party is resigned to consolidating its losses.
This week we take a look at the key contests to watch out for in the East Midlands and the East of England – the councils and places in these regions where things could significantly change and where the current balance of power is marginal.
There are 33 councils in the East Midlands holding elections, and a disproportionate number of these contests are really close. A few seats moving either way could dramatically change the balance of power in any of these councils – definitely a region worth keeping an eye on. However, it’s not an easy region to watch, because lots of the councils have a significant number of independents, so our guide will seek to point out where changes are possible.
To start with a complicated one, North Kesteven District Council is currently run by a Conservative/Independent coalition. The big question is whether the Conservatives can become the majority party without relying on any independents, or if the various independent groupings in North Kesteven can retain their influence on the council.
In a similar situation, elsewhere in Lincolnshire, Boston Borough Council is currently run by the Conservatives, but even the slightest losses here will deprive them of their majority. In 2019 they started with a majority of one seat, today, due to vacancies, that majority has already disappeared, and it remains to be seen if they will regain it at the upcoming elections.
There are close contests, and then there is South Derbyshire District Council where, as of the time of writing, Labour and the Conservatives both have just under the 19 seats they need to form a majority. A lot has changed since the Conservatives won 22 seats at the 2019 election and a series of by-elections and shifts in party allegiance have made this one of the closest competitions between the two major parties you are likely to see.
Bolsover District Council is one of the councils commentators may look to if they want to know how well the election is going for the Labour party. Their primary challengers are a mix of independents, so it is unlikely that they will completely lose their control over the council, but if Labour does not win Bolsover, it will be a difficult night for the party.
High Peak Borough Council is another place to read the national tea leaves on the Labour party’s fortunes. They have been governing as a minority since their majority win in 2019 has been slowly eroded by the passage of time. Anything less than a majority in High Peak will be a bad sign for Labour, and may even signal a change in the governing of the council.
Looking to West Lindsey District Council, there is another close contest, but this time between the Conservatives, who currently have the most seats, and the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats have won a few by-elections here, most famously after the Conservative ex-council leader was imprisoned for fraud, and will be hoping to tip the balance.
The mayoral contest in Mansfield will definitely be worth watching. Labour won by a tiny margin (two votes!) in the second round last time it was up in 2019. This year, with the new rules, there are no second rounds, so Labour will be hoping to stave off the many independents that have traditionally performed well in Mansfield. On the council, independents are currently the largest group, closely followed by Labour.
The Conservatives will be defending small majorities in North East Derbyshire and Erewash, where the Labour party is the main challenger. If Labour manage to take either of these it will be a good night for the party, retaking a significant 2019 loss in North East Derbyshire, and breaking a 20 year Conservative streak in Erewash, and if they manage to win a majority on both, it’ll be an excellent night for them.
A Conservative minority administration is under similar pressure in Derby City, where the whole council is up for election (after being a by-thirds council for decades). Labour made gains here in 2022, so will be hoping to overtake the Conservative party and form a majority. In the Derbyshire Dales there is no obvious single challenger to the Conservatives, but if the party loses many seats they could lose their majority on the council, a precarious position considering the Conservative leader recently resigned from the council after a local controversy.
East of England
There are 43 elections in the East of England this May – 37 district councils and six unitaries. Most of the councils up for election here are currently run by the Conservative party, and a good night for the Conservatives would have to include defending a few of these closer seats, such as Brentwood or Rochford. As we can see from the diagram above, most of the really close contests are along the East coast in places like Maldon.
On Maldon District Council, if the Conservatives manage to get just a few more councillors they will be in a position to make up an absolute majority on the council, and will regain a council that was Conservative for years before they lost their majority in 2021.
Brentwood Borough Council is another interesting contest, this time between the Conservative party, who currently have a tiny majority, and the next biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, who are only a handful of seats away from winning a majority of their own. If the Conservative party fail to hold on to Brentwood it will be the first time since 2015 they have not commanded a majority on the council.
Mid Suffolk District Council is the first of our councils on this list where the Green party are the main challengers. The last time these seats were up for election, in 2019, the Green party managed to pick up 34% of the vote, up from 15% in 2015, and a similar swing this year would see them take the council this year. However, the Conservative party will be hoping to pick up two seats to give themselves a full majority on the council.
The Conservative party lost control of Rochford District Council in February of this year after three councillors left the Conservative group on the council. Only a third of the seats here are up for election, but it would be enough for the Conservatives to regain their majority, or for the independent groups that make up their main challengers to continue to deny them the opportunity.
Tendring District Council is another close contest on the east coast, and like Maldon, the Conservatives are challenged by a group of independents. As recently as 2015, UKIP had a major presence on the council, and it remains to be seen whether the first elections post-Brexit will see a significant change in Tendring. The Conservatives only need four more seats to get an overall majority.
One particularly interesting council is Babergh District Council, which has been run by a coalition since the Conservatives lost their overall majority in 2019. However, the Conservatives are still the largest party and will be hoping to gain a few seats and retake the council from the Liberal Democrat/Green/Independent coalition.
There are small Conservative majorities in East Cambridgeshire District Council, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, Welwyn Hatfield and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk where losing just a couple of seats in any of these councils could deprive them of their single-party control. The same is true for the Liberal Democrats in Chelmsford City, although they will most likely still be the largest party. On Peterborough City Council the Conservatives are currently holding on to a minority, and although no party is likely to independently overtake them, a broad coalition could overtake the council if the Conservatives lose a significant number of seats.
No single party has control of Bedford Borough Council which is split pretty evenly between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, however the important race here is for the elected mayor – currently held by the Liberal Democrats’ Dave Hodgson, who has been Mayor since 2009. In the last few elections the Conservatives have come in second, so watch out to see if this year, with the new electoral system for mayoral elections, the Liberal Democrats can hold on.
There are a few councils with no overall control where small changes could result in the formation of new coalitions – in North Hertfordshire Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently running the council together, but the Conservatives are the largest party. Similar coalitions lead the councils in Colchester and Southend-on-Sea, each time with the Conservatives as the largest party but not participating in the coalition.
For further analysis have a look at LGIU’s Ones to watch guide to the 2023 local elections.
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A summary of this week’s elections news
Senior Tory MP warns voter ID will reduce turnout at elections
The Government’s choice to introduce voter ID, meaning voters across England will be forced to show a form of photo ID to vote, risks a low turnout at the elections next month says David Davis, a previous Tory Cabinet Minister. Campaigners have highlighted the low take-up of the Government’s free Voter Authority Certificate, with just over 40,000 people applying in England. Surveys have highlighted that 27% of voters aren’t aware of the new rule, creating fears that tens of thousands could be blocked from casting their ballots, reducing the likelihood of people voting. Labour’s Deputy leader Angela Rayner stated that “ministers are failing in their duties in ensuring the public are aware of the “unnecessary” policy.”
Lib Dems on mission to hurt Tories in local elections
Figures have highlighted that the Liberal Democrats are fielding the highest proportion of candidates since 2007, equivalent of 60% of seats being fought in England and Wales, whilst the Tory numbers are down 3% to 93% placing the Lib Dems in a position to hurt the Tories in the local elections. Labour seats have remained the same, at 77%. More than 8,000 sets will be contested in 230 councils and the council contests could be the last before a general election, giving Labour and the Lib Dems an opportunity to exploit the Tory weakness after the downfalls of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and the economy being on the brink of recession. Leader of the Lib Dem Party Ed Davey said, “the Lib Dems are ready to deliver, with the Conservatives failing people for far too long whether it be the cost-of-living crisis, the failure to manage our NHS, or enabling water companies to pump filthy sewage into our rivers.”
Labour Party pitching itself as the “party of home ownership” in the run up to local elections
Research by the Labour Party has highlighted that under the Conservative Government, first-time buyers have faced nearly £500 a month increase in mortgage bills due to the hike in rates under former Prime Minister Liz Truss. The analysis shows that the two-year fixed rate and average advance monthly payments rose from £837 in January 2022 to £1,303 in December 2022. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves visited a community bank in Brighton on Tuesday, where she echoed the Labour pledge to help first-time buyers purchase new-built homes, introduce a mortgage guarantee scheme and put an end to entire developments being sold off-plan to overseas investors.
Greens want rent caps and for housing firms to fund more services
The Green Party is calling for councils to be handed powers to cap rents. It says in the short term, it would replicate the six-month winter rent freeze supported by the Scottish Greens in Scotland. In the longer-term, it says it would give councils powers to control rents in expensive areas. The Greens are also calling for property developers to provide more funding towards local services. Co-leader Adrian Ramsay said too many areas, particularly rural ones, had been left without proper infrastructure when large estates are built. Property firms, he added, have been allowed to ‘chase the biggest profits and ignore local needs’. The party wants tighter planning rules on the location of new housing.
Potential coalition in Swindon
The Liberal Democrats could find themselves with 19 seats in Swindon and decide to form a coalition with Labour or a blue and yellow alliance with the Tories. Currently, Labour hold 23 seats and the Conservatives hold 32 out of the total 57, meaning that Labour need to win the seats they already hold and win an extra six to gain a slender majority over the Conservatives. Labour are eyeing up seats in Old Town, Penhill & Upper Stratton and Liden, Eldene & Park South as defining seats for the election. Other seats of interest include Wroughton & Wichelstowe where the Conservative councillor Cathy Martin suddenly left the council earlier this year.
Key battlegrounds in Coventry
In Coventry, the Labour Party, the Conservatives, the Greens, and the Independents are looking make gains in the local elections. In the Sherbourne ward, it has been a tight race between Labour and the Conservatives, with winning margins at less than 100 in three of the last four elections. Last September, Conservative candidate Jackie Gardiner gained a seat from Labour with 52% of the vote and the Tories will be looking to keep this momentum up come May. On the other hand, Labour could win a seat in Westwood where Cllr Abdul Jobbar won 102 votes last year, which is a ward that has swung back and forth between both parties multiple times since 2010.
North East of England presents key test for Labour
The North East of England will present a key test for Labour and whether their national poll can translate into votes. The result in May 2019 was an indication of what was to follow in the future as Labour lost a number of parliamentary seats in the region to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Labour will be looking to reverse Conservative control in areas like Darlington which they lost in 2019 for the first time in 22 years, and winning back control here would be a sign of rapid recovery. In areas like Middlesbrough, Labour will fancy their chances of unseating enough 2019 winners to regain its majority but they will need to overcome the most prominent Independent victor, businessman Andy Preston who will look to stand in their way. Labour are already dominant in places like Tyneside and Wearside, but there might be more gains at the expense of the Conservatives in places like Sunderland where the Liberal Democrats will also be looking to win over.
Labours manifesto offers a “consistent and aspirational vision” for Reading
Reading’s Labour party sets out their manifesto ahead of the local elections, promising to “build on its stewardship of the council and offering financial stability.” As part of the manifesto, Labour promises to build 500 new council homes and retrofit existing ones to make them cheaper to heat. The manifesto also promises residents an investment in “easy, realistic, cheap and sustainable new travel” and also pledges to introduce “tougher enforcement against fly tipping.”
what local government is responsible for
Councils are responsible for a very wide range of services, many of which are statutory (i.e. they are legally required to fulfil them).
- Education, for example, providing schools, transport to get children to school and providing opportunities for adult learning;
- Housing, such as finding accommodation for people in need and maintaining social housing;
- Social Services, for example, caring for and protecting children, older people and disabled people;
- Highways and transport, including maintaining roads and managing traffic flow;
- Waste management, including collecting rubbish and recycling;
- Leisure and cultural services, for example, providing libraries, leisure services and arts venues;
- Consumer protection, such as enforcing trading standards and licensing taxis;
- Environmental health and services, for example, making sure that the food provided in pubs and restaurants is safe to eat, and controlling pollution locally;
- Planning, including managing local development and making sure buildings are safe;
- Economic development, for example, attracting new businesses and encouraging tourism;
- Emergency planning for things like floods or terrorist attacks.
In England, the responsibilities are divided up between the district and county council in two-tier areas and extra duties may be discharged by combined authorities in places which have one.
What is local government responsible for?
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|Local tax collection||✔️||✔️||✔️||✔️|
Make sure you check out...
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It’s important for the public to understand who is making the decisions about their local area. But when there’s a coalition or a minority administration, what does that mean for how the council is run? Read this article.
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The impact of Voter ID: FAQs
Voter ID was required in the May 2023 local elections for the first time. And everyone has questions about it – of course. Dr Greg Stride answers some of the big ones for us the day after the elections. Read this article.
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