One week until polling day
This week's highlights
With one week to go, the Conservatives could lose a third of their seats with Labour becoming the biggest party within local government. With the current public sector crisis under Rishi Sunak, the lack of Labour progress made previously is likely to change in this election.
Concerns around the introduction of voter ID remain, with the Government viewing the requirement for photo IDs being seen as a way to prevent the possibility of voter fraud. Local Government Minister Lee Rowley has denied that the introduction is a form of voter suppression.
Sewage pollution played a significant role in the campaign agenda with Environment Secretary Therese Coffey announcing a measure to ‘make polluters pay.’ Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey described the sewage issues as a ‘national scandal’, with the Green Party wanting to see the water industry renationalised, stating that firms shouldn’t be ‘rewarded for failure.’ Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary Jim McMahon has called for automatic fines and a target to end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030.
Projections by expert pollsters suggest that the Conservatives could lose more than 1,000 seats during this election following a year of turmoil, with the Liberal Democrats targeting a number of ‘Blue Wall’ seats in areas such as Surrey, Reading and Woking.
This week we turn our attention to the South East and South West; where are the interesting contests and which are the councils that are likely to change hands?
The South East has the largest number of elections this year – 57 – and a fair few of these, especially the NOC councils as we can see in the diagram above, are very close to changing hands. About half of the elections here are whole-council elections, but most of the ones-to-watch are elections by thirds. The South East is also home to a few of the least competitive Conservative councils in the country, such as Sevenoaks, where the Conservatives have 43 out 54 seats.
Gravesham Borough Council in Kent is on a knife edge between Labour and the Conservatives. Out of 44 total seats, the Conservatives have 21 and Labour 22. The whole council is up for election, so things could look very different once all the ballot papers are counted. Lessons from the last 30 years show that Gravesham council can and will change hands, so definitely one of the ones to watch.
A third of seats in Crawley Borough Council are up for election, which is enough for Labour to lose the slim majority they have held since 2022. The Conservatives are only 3 seats behind Labour. A decent result for either party could see them take control.
Wokingham Borough Council is in a similar situation but with different parties. In this case, no party has a majority, the Liberal Democrats having gained enough seats from the Conservatives in 2022 to deny them the majority they had held for 20 years before. This council is fascinating to look back on, you only need to go back as far as 2018 and the Conservatives had 41 seats out of 54. Today they have only 26, and if the Liberal Democrats pull off the same gain in seats as they managed last year, they will take single-party control of the council. As it is, they have governed in coalition with Labour and Independents for the last year.
Hart District Council is a rare three-way split between Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Independents, primarily made up of a local party called Community Campaign (Hart) or CCH. Given that 17 seats are needed for a majority, and all three groups have between 10 and 11 seats, it looks as though anything could happen in Hart. Although recent history would suggest that this three-way tie is resilient, having defined the council’s political balance since 2014.
In Southampton City Council the Labour party is holding onto a tiny majority they won in 2022, after the Conservatives won a majority the year before in 2021. Will these elections signal another change in Southampton, or will Labour hold onto their majority? Definitely one to watch.
There are a few councils in the South East which currently have small majorities. The Liberal Democrats in Eastbourne, or the Conservatives in Windsor and Maidenhead and Test Valley. All of these are whole council elections, so it remains to be seen whether these small majorities can survive a full election, or if there will be significant changes.
Finally, there are a huge number of NOC councils in the South East, and as you can see in the map above, these are usually fairly marginal. Watch out for the Conservative minorities in: Chichester, Spelthorne, Surrey Heath, Ashford, and Arun where they face challenges from the Liberal Democrats or strong local independents. Or the slim Conservative majorities in West Berkshire Council, Cherwell District Council, Canterbury City Council or Maidstone Borough Council where much the same applies.
Then there are the coalitions in Rother, Milton Keynes, South Oxfordshire, Elmbridge, Folkestone and Hythe, Swale, West Oxfordshire, Lewes, Tunbridge Wells, and Waverley Borough Council where the Conservatives are the greatest challengers, often making up the largest party.
The South East represents one of the most important regions for the Conservative party in these elections. In lots of these close contests the Conservatives are either close to a majority, or holding on by a slim margin. A bad night for the Conservatives in the South East would make a significant dent in the overall number of councils they control.
The entire South West region could ‘change colour’ overnight, as technically most of the councils with elections could swap political control. There are eleven district councils holding elections, with all but one (Exeter) with all seats up for grabs. Seven unitary councils are also holding elections with only two, Plymouth and Swindon electing by thirds.
Plymouth City Council has traditionally flipped between Labour and Conservative control. There is currently a Conservative minority administration which has only just elected a new leader after the previous leader Richard Bingley got the axe after a tree felling controversy. Since there are fewer Conservative councillors than Labour, there was some speculation that former Labour leader Tudor Evans might form an administration, but he demurred, insisting voters have their say.
Torbay Council is run by a Liberal Democrat and Independent coalition, with slightly more Conservative than LibDem councillors. Will recent controversies over affordable housing on greenfield land and pedestrianising in Paignton benefit the Tories? Would it be enough to increase their majority by the five seats they need to take control?
Swindon Council is technically ‘flippable’, and while Conservatives lost seats at the last election (May 2022) they still hold a reasonable majority and only a third of seats are up. However, about twice as many Tory held seats will be contested as Labour (the only other contender), including in wards which saw Labour gains in 2022.
Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole Council (BCP), is a relatively new council, and this is only its second set of elections. There is a Conservative minority administration with a rainbow of seats in opposition. There would probably have to be significant LibDem gains to change much.
In North Somerset, the Conservatives have been steadily losing ground since 2011, with the council going into a rainbow coalition the last time elections were held in 2019. But other major parties have fared no better, with gains going to Greens and Independents.
Both Cotswold DC (LibDem) and South Hams DC (Cons) both with all out elections currently have just enough seats to have political control with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats respectively having the next largest group. West Devon Council’s conservative majority is only one up on the number of seats it needs for a majority administration, but there is no next major political grouping.
Teignbridge has a minority Lib Dem administration after a gain from the Conservatives at the last election in 2019.
Forest of Dean Council in Gloucestershire has been in No Overall Control for two decades and has had an Independent cabinet. Council leader Tim Gwilliam has been mulling stepping down, but currently seems set to run. Though it’s an all-out election, it would be a shocker if the council tipped out of NOC. Torridge Council in Devon also has a long history of NOC and half of its Members are independent councillors, though it did have a spell of Conservative control until 2019.
For further analysis have a look at LGIU’s Ones to watch guide to the 2023 local elections.
A summary of this week’s elections news
4% of voters without voter ID apply through scheme
Four per cent of the estimated two million people who do not have valid ID have signed up for a government scheme to allow them to vote. This year’s local elections will be the first time all voters in England must show photo ID. 85,000 people have applied online for a free Voter Authority Certificate ahead of the deadline. The Government said the vast majority of voters already had an accepted form of ID, while campaigners said the scheme had been ‘an absolute failure’ and had left people at risk of being turned away from voting.
How sewage topped the political agenda
Labour seem determined to bring the poor behaviour of water companies to the top of the political agenda the week before the local elections; on Tuesday the Shadow Environment Secretary introduced an Opposition motion that would have obliged the Government to set aside Commons time next week for a debate and vote on a Labour bill to impose tougher penalties for sewage spills. Following a three-hour debate, MPs voted the Labour bill down by 290 to 198, meaning Labour have plenty of campaign materials for next week’s elections. Labour isn’t the only party vocal on this issue, with the Liberal Democrats having made water pollution central to their campaign, identifying it as a salient issue amongst potential swing voters in Conservative seats. ‘When we started talking about sewage two years ago, the other parties though it was a bit weird’ said one Lib Dem official. ‘But now they all want to talk about it’.
Frustration at Labour and Lib Dem HQs as local parties ‘go rogue’ to create progressive alliance
Whilst local party figures have refused to speak about it publicly, a de facto progressive alliance has emerged between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, in Berkshire’s Bracknell Forest where the Conservatives currently hold 37 of 42 seats. In 12 of the council’s 15 wards, only one of the three progressive parties are standing candidates, and none of the 15 wards features Labour candidates taking on the Lib Dems. These efforts will likely anger party officials; the Labour party has repeatedly stated it would not do any deals with other parties to win power, meanwhile any suggestion of an alliance with Labour may hurt the Liberal Democrats’ plan to target traditionally Tory voters. Polling carried out by the New Statesman of 671 local councillors, found that 80% said they would be willing to work with other political parties in coalitions.
Liberal Democrats target southern Tory heartlands
The Liberal Democrats are targeting the Conservative ‘blue wall’ seats in Southern England. Party strategists believe that Surrey especially is where the Lib Dems may have the best chance of making gains among traditional Tories with more liberal views, who have become alienated by the shift to the right post-Brexit. The resignation of Dominic Raab, the MP for Surrey seat Esher and Walton, has raised Liberal Democrat hopes further that they may have a chance of making advances at a future general election. All 11 of the county’s district and borough councils will be up for election on 4 May so the Lib Dems need to make significant gains from the Tories to prove their credibility ahead of the next general election.
Brighton Greens 'confident' of making gains in traditionally Conservative ward
Caroline Lucas, the MP for Brighton Pavilion and former Green party leader, went canvassing with the party’s three candidates in the ward. The Greens came within 300 votes of winning a seat in the area in a by-election in 2021. Lucas told The Argus that she was proud of the Green-led administration, particularly after taking control at the height of the pandemic.
Source: The Argus
Council publishes rap video to encourage voters to check ID
Broadland and South Norfolk Councils have released a video featuring their Chief Executive Trevor Holden rapping under the name T-Dawg, as a reminder to voters to check they have suitable ID ahead of the local elections. During the 56-second clip, Holden can be seen wearing a bucket hat and waving his hands while rapping over a beat: ‘I’ve got something to say about May’s local elections. T-Dawg spitting bars about voter ID selection. So make sure you bring it or you’ll receive rejection.’
How many councils there are
In some areas of England, local government is divided between a county council (upper-tier) and a district council (lower tier), which are responsible for different services. In other areas, there is a single unitary authority instead.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there are only unitary, single-tier councils.
There are 318 principal (unitary, upper and second-tier) councils in England, including 21 county councils, 164 district councils, 131 unitaries and 2 Sui Generis authorities.
England – there are 318 councils in England.
- 21 County Councils (upper-tier)
- 164 District Councils (lower-tier)
- 32 London Boroughs (unitary)
- 36 Metropolitan Boroughs (unitary)
- 63 Unitary authorities (unitary)
- 2 Sui Generis authorities – City of London Corporation and Isles of Scilly (unitary)
Wales has 22 unitary authorities, Scotland 32 unitary authorities and Northern Ireland has 11.
There are around 11,930 local councils in the UK, including town, parish, community, neighbourhood and village councils
Make sure you check out...
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The LGIU and Ipsos conducted research into people’s attitudes towards local elections and how much they understand about Voter ID. Catch up on the full findings plus the panel discussion where we launched the results. Find out more.
Global Local: declining trust in electoral systems
In this issue of Global Local, we’ve look at how local elections can operate at their best in an age of declining trust in electoral systems and results. Read Global Local.
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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