LGIU and Vuelio 2023 Elections Bulletin - 6 April
Four weeks until polling day
This week's highlights
With just under a month to go until people head to the ballot box, campaigns are well under way.
Last week Keir Starmer made an appearance in Swindon, an area Labour hopes to win, accompanied by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, who introduced him as ‘the next British Prime Minister’. Starmer promised to ease the cost of living crisis by freezing council tax. The Lib Dems described Labour’s pledge to freeze council tax as a ‘sticking plaster’ which would not truly support people struggling, while the Conservatives argued that there are Labour councils across the country that have put up council tax this year. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said ‘Labour town halls charge higher council tax, and a Labour-run Whitehall would do the same.’
A day before Labour’s launch, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey drove a tractor through a blue wall of painted hay bales, which were supposed to represent vulnerable Conservative seats. Davey said the Tories are ‘out of touch, out of ideas and out of excuses’.
The Conservatives held a very low-key campaign launch a week earlier, with Rishi Sunak making a very brief visit to the Black Country, only inviting local media.
Tory ministers have been told to spend three days campaigning ahead of 4th May. Similarly, Labour frontbenchers have been told to make three visits to allocated target areas, which include Swindon, Plymouth and Stoke.
Following a change to the law last year, voters now have to show photo ID before being issued a ballot paper in polling stations for general, local and police and crime commissioner elections, as well as referendums. In the run up to the local elections, people have voiced concerns over the new rules, saying that it could prevent some people from voting. Many have spoken about the potential disenfranchising of younger voters.
The Conservatives currently have the biggest number of seats and councils in England, holding majority control of 85 councils and defending 3,365 seats. The Tories have the most to lose, defending four in 10 of all seats up for grabs. Labour has majority control of 50 councils and 2,131 seats. They will be looking to reclaim the red wall of the North and the Midlands, while the Lib Dems will be aiming to make gains in the Tory blue wall in the South. The Lib Dems have control of 16 authorities and are defending 1,223 seats. A third of English councils currently have no overall control. The Greens are defending 239 seats and Independents or local parties have majority control over five councils. These contests represent the biggest test of public opinion before next year’s general election, so the stakes are particularly high.
Local elections in England 2023
The last time many of these council seats were up for election, in 2019, the Conservative party was in the middle of a major decline in electoral fortunes under Theresa May. The local elections took place just weeks before the party’s worst national electoral performance ever, when it received under 10% of the vote at the European parliamentary elections on May 23rd.
However, at the local elections on 2nd May, when the eventual largest party at the European parliamentary election – the Brexit party – did not stand, the Conservative party fared significantly better, their electoral weaknesses partially masked by similar weaknesses within the Labour party at the time. Both Labour and the Conservatives got 28% of the national vote. In terms of gains and losses, the picture was stark, the Conservative party lost over 1300 councillors and lost majority political control of 44 councils. Labour lost control of 6 councils and the Liberal Democrats gained control of 10. The big change of the night was the increase in the number of NOC (No Overall Control) councils, where 37 new councils found themselves with no majority party.
Judging the 2023 elections against this backdrop will be difficult. So much has changed since then – we have had a general election, four prime ministers, and Britain has left the European Union. On a national level, the abnormal political landscape of 2019 where the Conservative party had its worst national performance ever in May, and then won a majority in the House of Commons in December, makes comparison quite difficult.
Most importantly, local issues, local parties, councils electing by thirds and the nature of the councils up for election each year muddy the messages that local elections send.
The 2022 local elections saw a difficult night for the Conservative party, which lost over 300 seats and close to a dozen councils. But no single party definitely benefited from the Conservatives’ weak performance. Because the Conservatives are defending the most councils this year (see the graph below) their potential losses are also highest. This will not be an inviting prospect for a party that, according to public opinion polls, has seen a significant drop in its popularity since last May.
As the graph below, Councils up for election by party control, shows, 36% of the councils up for election are Conservative-majority councils, and a further 35% have no single party forming a majority (learn more about these here). Only 20% are currently Labour-controlled. Even just looking at single-party majority councils, the Conservatives are starting the night with more to lose than the other parties.
As well as toppling Conservative majorities, other parties could seek to gain from the large proportion of councils where there is currently no majority. As the graph below (NOC councils by control) shows, most of these councils with no overall majority for any one party are held by the Conservative party in minority administrations, again introducing a way in which their overall control of councils could be diminished by a weak performance in these elections. In the analysis below, we have picked out a few of the important councils from each region where a small change in seats could dramatically alter the balance of power in the council.
As the graph above, Councils up for election by region and party control, shows, in terms of the national picture there are a few regions that stand out. The South East and East of England have both the largest number of elections, and the largest number of defending Conservative councils.
Labour are likely to be aiming to gain seats in these elections, especially given they do not have many councils to defend compared to the Conservatives. They will definitely want to make progress in the North East, including retaking Middlesbrough Council, even if winning the vote for the directly elected Mayor is a more difficult prospect. Overall, these elections represent an opportunity for Labour to improve from a relatively low baseline.
In the 2019 elections, the Liberal Democrats gained 10 councils, a significant success. This was complimented by a strong showing in 2022, where they gained over 200 seats. They are defending 17 councils this year. Look out for Sheffield City, where they will be holding off Labour, the current largest party and their coalition partners, from forming a majority. In Stockport or Teignbridge a few extra seats in either council could see them form majority administrations where they currently govern as minority parties. In Brentwood, denying the Conservatives just one seat could change the council from a Conservative majority to NOC.
There are a few councils where the Greens will have set their sights on improving their standing. In the Green’s most successful area – Brighton and Hove – they already form a minority administration, and may be seeking to turn this into a majority. In one of our ones to watch, Mid Suffolk council, a small change in seats could see the Greens overtake the Conservatives as the largest party.
In terms of party control, the Reform party represents an unknown quantity in these local elections. Although it is unlikely they will take control of any councils, and in the last few sets of local elections they won only a couple of seats, in close contests, especially those where the Conservatives are holding on to a small majority, their successes could become decisive given the difficult opinion polls for the Conservative party.
As always, we are most interested in areas where the control of the council might shift. Although using local elections to predict the fortunes of the major national parties is tempting, we shouldn’t overlook that the decisions made in May will have a major impact on how essential local services – like adult social care, children’s services and housing – are run. A small change in a party’s successes on a national scale could shift the balance at a local level, and have a great impact on our daily lives.
Throughout our analysis we have paid attention to the “marginality” of a council. In our definition, marginality is the average of the absolute difference between the largest party and the number of seats needed for a majority, and the absolute difference between the number of seats held by the largest party and the second largest party. We designed this so it would show us not only whether there is a majority, but also how big the majority is, and how powerful the largest party is compared to the second largest party.
Essentially, this single score for each council shows us both how secure the largest party’s position is, and how likely the council is to change control. The very dark shape in the North West is Manchester, where the Labour party has 91 out of 96 seats. It is the least marginal of all the councils having elections this year.
For further analysis have a look at LGIU’s Ones to watch guide to the 2023 local elections.
Join LGIU for a discussion, jointly hosted with Ipsos, about the State of the Locals in 2023. Our panel of political and local government experts will discuss their views on the state of local democracy and local elections.
Online policy event | 21 April | 10:00-10:45 | FREE TO ATTEND
Tories could lose over 1,000 seats at May local elections, election experts say
Analysis conducted by election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher suggests that with a 6% swing from Conservative voters to Labour, the Tories risk losing excess of 1,000 local council seats, with Labour gaining around 700. The analysis also points out that the Conservatives have the most to lose this time, having to defend 3290 seats this year, compared to Labour’s 2062 and the Liberal Democrats’ 1205. Tory peer and elections expert Lord Robert Hayward admitted that the party’s image had been ‘seriously damaged’, by party gate and the impact of public sector strikes, but that Rishi Sunak ‘may be pulling the Tory party up. What seems to be happening is, the longer he is in as Prime Minister the less of an impact Boris/Partygate is having’.
Labour propose to freeze council tax for a year, as campaign launches
Labour Leader Keir Starmer launched his party’s local election campaign with a speech in Swindon last week, during which he suggested that Labour would use an extended windfall tax to freeze council tax for over a year. However, when pressed on whether Labour would implement a freeze if they win the next general election, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said she ‘won’t announce any spending increases or tax cuts that aren’t fully costed and fully funded’, leading to accusations of dishonesty from Conservative spokespersons. Starmer’s choice to launch the campaign in Swindon signals the party is planning to go on the offensive this May, as the council has been Tory since 2004, but could swing back to Labour with targeted gains from the local party.
Lib Dem Leader Sir Ed Davey vows to steal Tory and Labour votes in campaign launch
The Liberal Democrat Leader launched his party’s campaign in the former Conservative heartland of Berkhamsted, with a video of him driving a yellow tractor through a ‘blue wall’ of haystacks. He then gave a speech to councillors and party members where he said that ‘lifelong Conservatives are saying they’ve had enough, that they’re never going to vote Conservative again and they’re switching to the Liberal Democrats’. Sir Ed also voiced his hope that Labour voters would switch to Lib Dems and that he believes his party will make ‘many, many more gains’.
Voter photo ID plan attacked as UK data shows no cases of impersonation
Statistics show that there was not a single proven case of voter impersonation last year, leading to renewed accusations that the Government’s decision to voter ID is a waste of time and could potentially lead to voter suppression. Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner has said the Government has ‘clearly failed in its duties’ to make the public aware of the change to voter ID rules ahead of the elections. Under the new rules, a passport or drivers’ license are valid ID. Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society warned that ‘allowing bus passes and Oyster cards for older voters but refusing to accept the same forms of ID for young people means that these new rules could disproportionately shut out younger voters from the ballot box’.
Men dominate 95% of local authorities in Britain, data shows
Recent analysis conducted by the Fawcett Society and Democracy Club has found that the vast majority of local councils are dominated by men, and only just over a third of total councillors are women, with only 18 of 282 councils meeting gender representation parity. Issues such as sexism, harassment and a lack of support with caring responsibilities have previously been indicated as barriers to women’s participation in local government. The chief executive of the Fawcett Society Jemima Olchawski said ‘women are significantly impacted by decisions made at the local level and are more likely to rely on the services our councils run from social care to social housing. Yet progress on women’s representation in local government is moving at a snail’s pace’.
Rishi Sunak airbrushed out of Conservative leaflets
It is being reported that some Conservative candidates are airbrushing Rishi Sunak from their leaflets ahead of the local elections. Campaign material from areas including Blackpool, Solihull, East Cleveland and Stratford-Upon-Avon do not contain images of Rishi Sunak, instead showing Tory figures such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Suella Braverman. A leaflet from Eastbourne, where the Conservatives are currently in opposition, does not reference any of the Tory’s work in Westminster, instead focusing on the council’s offering to residents on parking, weed killing and the maintenance of graveyards.
New powers will help prevent potholes says Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised a clampdown on potholes whilst campaigning in Darlington. He said the Tories were ‘delivering locally for the North East’ with more money being put into fixing potholes and clamping down on utility companies. A survey commissioned by the Asphalt Industry Alliance noted that councils in England and Wales only received two thirds of what they needed this year to stop local roads from further deteriorating. At the Spring Budget the Government announced they are investing more than £5.5bn between 2020 and 2025 into highway maintenance, with an extra £200m to help fix potholes, however, motoring groups have called for more investment to improve state and country roads.
BBC journalists to strike during local elections over radio cuts
A 24-hour planned strike due to disputes over cuts by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is due to coincide with the reporting of poll results. The strike action, planned for 5 May, will be the second 24-hour strike by the NUJ. According to the Union, the BBC’s management want local radio stations to share programmes across the network from 2pm on weekdays and weekends. They argue this would reduce the hours of local programming from over 100 to a minimum of 48 and that consequently, journalists could lose their jobs and may need to re-apply to their roles, which the NUJ believe will ‘kill off local radio.’ This claim has been refuted by the BBC who say the plan will ‘modernise local services’ and will not reduce overall staffing levels.
19 Leicester councillors told they cannot stand in election
The Labour Party in Leicester has been told that 19 sitting councillors have been deselected by the National Executive Committee (NEC) and therefore cannot stand in the elections, with majority of them from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. The party decided to appoint an NEC board to choose Leicester’s council candidates rather than leave the decision to local members. 15 of the Labour’s 26 BAME councillors have been told they cannot stand, a total of 58%, compared with four of the 22 white Labour councillors. Several deselected councillors have stated that they will stand as independent candidates, whilst others are considering defecting to other parties. A Labour councillor for Stoneygate ward, Sharmen Rahman stated it is ‘absolutely undemocratic.’
Anti-cuts party to field eight candidates in Brighton and Hove
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) plan to field eight candidates in Brighton and Hove this year. The TUSC were opposed to Labour and Green councillors voting for cuts of up to £14m to Brighton and Hove services earlier this year. They said ‘councillors should use the council’s reserves and borrowing powers and a mass campaign to get back funds cut over the last 13 years from central government.’ Candidate David Maples, who is preparing to stand in Brunswick, described the cuts over the last four years in Brighton as ‘devastating’ as he looks to defeat Green council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty and deputy leader Hannah Allbrooke.
Peterborough Green Party runs its biggest campaign ever
The Green Party in Peterborough is reportedly running its biggest campaign ever. Candidate Cllr Nicola Day and fellow Green Cllr Kirsty Knight frequently run ‘Meet On Your Street’ sessions where they aim to listen to residents and the issues they face at hand. They also recently held a ‘Local Community Assembly’, bringing residents together from across wards to help councillors set priorities in the local area.
Greens launch local election campaign with housing demand
The Green Party is calling for property developers to provide more funding towards local services, as it launches its local election campaign. 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 also says planning rules, administered by local councils, should be changed to promote the renovation of existing buildings, in a bid to reduce the environmental impact of new construction. Additionally, new developments should be designed to reduce the use of cars, including by building near train stations or frequent bus services.
There are roughly 17,000 councillors in England.
Demographic data on councillors is hard to find as it is not regularly or officially collected. The most recent data comes from the LGA 2022 Census of Local Authority Councillors which shows that:
- 40% of councillors were retired, and 32% were in full- or part-time employment;
- 61% of councillors held other voluntary or unpaid positions, such as school governorships;
- 64% of councillors held a degree or equivalent qualification; only 4% did not hold any qualification;
- 59% of councillors were male, and 41% female;
- The average age of councillors in 2022 was 60 years; 16% were aged under-45 and 42% were aged 65 or over;
- 92% described their ethnic background as white;
- 84% described their sexual orientation as heterosexual or straight;
- 16% had a long-term health problem or disability which limited their daily activities;
- 46% of councillors had a responsibility as a carer, most commonly looking after a child.
Make sure you check out...
Our full local elections resources
LGIU’s one-stop-shop for the 2023 local elections in England includes practical resources like briefings and training plus commentary and analysis. Check out all our elections resources
LGIU’s essential guide to elections communications
This guide suggests some easy steps to make election communications better so that local people know where to vote, who they can vote for and how much their vote mattered in the final outcome. Read the guide.
Training courses for councillors
LGIU’s training offers a variety of courses from scrutiny skills to speed reading, which will be of use to both incoming and more established councillors. See all our courses.
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