England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Getting into the swing of things: two months to go until the local elections


May 5th is fast approaching and at LGiU we are gearing up for our annual coverage of the elections that really matter. Charlotte Maddix crunches some numbers and looks at what it might all mean for council control across the country. 

This time last year, we were all becoming extremely interested in coalition politics. The big story was councils in ‘no overall control’, where no one party had an overall majority. How did they work? What was it like? More importantly, what lessons did those councils have for parliamentary politics?

As it turned out, the national election followed the trend set by previous local elections – a good night for the Conservative Party.

I know it’s hard to believe, but it is now only two months until the local elections.

This year, the big distraction for many is the election for London mayor. You might be forgiven for not being aware that there are three other mayoral elections happening around the country – Liverpool, Bristol and Salford. There’s also 125 council elections, not to mention the Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

Labour has the most number of councils up for election, at 58. The Conservatives have 40. Four Liberal Democrat councils – out of the seven they control outright – are up for election. 23 councils with no overall majority are also up for election.


Labour control more of the councils up for election this year. This doesn’t automatically make them more vulnerable – but it looks from the data like they are in a weaker position than the Conservatives. For example, Labour have 12 councils up for election in thirds where, if they lose between one and four seats, they lose the council. The Conservatives have only eight councils in this position. Here’s what that looks like for each type of election – you can explore the data in the chart below by scrolling over it.

The North West is inundated with elections this year – although many of those councils are safe Labour authorities. Manchester, for example, famously has no councillors of any other party. As most of these are only out by thirds (that is, only a third of their council seats are up for grabs) there’s no possibility that Labour will lose control, although it will be interesting to see if other parties make any headway in the May elections.

The most vulnerable Labour councils are spread out around the country. Bradford, Crawley, Redditch, Rossendale and Southampton need a swing of just two seats for Labour to lose overall control. As these councils are also only out by thirds, Labour would remain the largest party – but without a majority. In Cannock Chase, Carlisle and Dudley Labour lead by around three seats; in Harlow, Norwich and West Lancashire, it’s four.

Hastings and Oxford both have half their seats up for election, and swings of nine and ten respectively required to tip the balance against Labour. It’s not impossible, but regardless of the result it should be interesting to see which way the public go there. Meanwhile, in Exeter the entire council is up for election and there’s just nine seats in it.


Although the Conservatives control more councils than Labour, they have fewer up for election this year – 40. The North-South ‘political divide’, coupled with the concentration of local elections taking place in the North West and the South East, means that the core areas of activity for each party are clear.

It’s therefore not surprising that the most vulnerable councils for the Conservatives are St Albans, Worcester, Trafford, Gloucester and Amber Valley – all outside the South East region.

The ones to watch are Gloucester and also Elmbridge – they’re both ‘all out’ and the Conservative majorities are slim. For both councils, this is the first year they’ve held all out elections following boundary changes. In the 2015 Elmbridge local elections, the Conservatives increased their majority by one – but despite winning two seats from independents, they narrowly lost a seat to the Liberal Democrats. Gloucester, meanwhile, has been Conservative-controlled for just a year.

Liberal Democrats

EastleighSouth Lakeland, Cheltenham and Watford are all up for election. Eastleigh will stay in Liberal Democrat hands, although any strengthening or weakening of their majority will be interesting to note. South Lakeland, with 17 seats up for election, needs a swing of eight for the Liberal Democrats to lose control. In Cheltenham, their majority is slimmer – at five councillors – and half the seats are up for election.

On the night we’ll be watching Watford closely. Just two councillors means the difference between an overall Liberal Democrat majority and no overall control of the council.

No overall control

The Liberal Democrats will be watching Three Rivers and Stockport closely – a single gain will see them wrest back an overall majority.

KirkleesCalderdale and Plymouth need just 1 Labour gain to go red – although the Conservatives need only three gains to take Plymouth. In North East Lincolnshire, Labour need two gains to change from a minority to a majority administration; in Walsall, three.

Likewise, the Conservatives need two gains in Portsmouth to do the same there. Just a few seats are needed in Peterborough, Hart, Maidstone, Colchester, Basildon and Southend. Southend currently has a rainbow coalition of independent councillors, Labour, the Democrats plus a breakaway ex-Conservative UKIP group.

Great Yarmouth, Newcastle-under-LymePendle and Thurrock are all are finely balanced and unlikely to be taken by any party.


After losing control of the council they dramatically gained in 2015 – Thanet – it will be interesting to see whether UKIP continue to gain councillors around the country. The added dimension of the EU referendum could work against them – why vote for UKIP if you’re getting a referendum anyway? – or for them.

So what?

Last year, Labour failed to make significant gains – although it wasn’t a disaster, with late-in-the-day consolation in the form of Cheshire West and Chester. Much has been made of the fact that the last opposition leader not to make local election gains was Michael Foot. The relationship between the Labour leadership and its local leaders has been fractious in recent times; the local elections in May are unlikely to change that.

For the Conservatives, the 2015 local elections were a modest triumph. This year, with austerity continuing to bite, can they repeat their successes?

Finally, for the Liberal Democrats, the gradual erosion could be set to continue – or it might be the start of the long walk back into the public’s good graces.

If you’d like to help us cover this year’s local elections, you can sign up here. We’ll be providing more analysis before, during and after the elections – and doing our usual live blog on the night.