Ones to Watch 2024

Bookmark

Foreword

By Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive, LGIU

This year has been dubbed the ‘year of elections’ with an unprecedented number of people going to the polls around the world.

In the UK, a General Election is on the horizon and on 2 May every part of England and Wales has at least one election. It is these local elections – local authority, mayoral, London Assembly and Police and Crime Commissioners – that the LGIU’s Ones to Watch guide is concerned with.

At the LGIU, we always say local elections are the most important set of elections of all because they are the ones that make the most difference to the places where we live and work and to our experience of public services.

That for us is an indisputable fact. But what the 2024 local elections starkly illustrate is that elections for local authorities are one part of the democratic continuum. Local context is always important, but the local elections not only reflect a wider national narrative they also develop and add substance to that narrative.

Local elections and general elections are connected and equal steps in the democratic process. What happens in May is not a support act to the general election, it is a chapter in our ever-evolving democracy and one that will influence the national election as much as the Westminster context will influence local outcomes.

And whatever the result of the next general election – the councillors, mayors, assembly members and PCCs we elect in May will remain. They will make decisions, guided by local circumstances, to deliver the best for their communities. This guide to the Ones to Watch picks out those local contests where things might change, control might be won or lost by a particular party and new political leaders could emerge. It’s not just fun to speculate, it also matters, because in these places local people could well see big changes in the priorities of their council and the services they receive.

Councils and councillors are vital to the wellbeing of local people and local areas, but it is often overlooked just how much our democracy depends on local government in one very practical way. All elections – local, national, referendums – are delivered by local government staff. And this essential service – perhaps the one on which all others depend – is overstretched and under-resourced. Our research last year found that running elections is becoming more stressful, that communicating election rules is becoming more difficult, and that running snap elections is a severe challenge, alongside long-running concerns amongst administrators about voter turnout. It is critical that in the year of elections, we appreciate and support the staff who work tirelessly to make elections happen, especially as a general election approaches.

Looking around the world today, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that democracy is under strain. Misinformation, distrust, and the bitterness that has infected public life cast a dark shadow over the institutions and individuals we rely on to keep our democracy going. In these difficult times it is more important than ever that we vote, that we engage our communities, and that we value the hard work and dedication of the councillors and officers who have committed themselves to improving the lives of local people.

Where are local elections happening?

Unfortunately, for those of us who can’t get enough elections, there are a relatively small number of local council elections this year. Only 107 (compared to the massive 230 last year). And, three-quarters of those having elections are only electing a third of their councillors – so the results are likely to be less dramatic than last year.

But, there is a silver lining! Every person across England and Wales will have the chance to vote. All those places that don’t have local council elections will have either Police and Crime Commissioner elections, or combined authority elections, or be in London and therefore able to vote for the London assembly and the mayor of London.

This ‘quiet’ year of elections is anything but quiet for the elections staff who make sure people can get to the polls, that votes are counted, and that we can all be confident in the results of the election. Every single elections team across England and Wales will be running at least one set of elections, and that’s before we even count the upcoming general election! As always, we extend our gratitude to the hard-working staff who make elections happen.

We also want to extend our thanks to the people who put hard work into collecting the data for these elections, much of which is crowd-sourced or from the excellent resource Open Council Data. Until there is a serious effort to collect and store these data centrally, estimates on council composition will always be based on the hard work of volunteers.

Equally, the good people at Democracy Club have provided a fantastic tool for checking the elections near you which we have included below.

Use the map below to see the political control of different councils, combined authorities and police and crime commissioners as of the 2nd April 2024 – one month before the local elections.

Test

Data: ONS Open Geography; Open Council Data; Wikipedia; Council, Police and Crime Commissioner and Combine Authority Websites; Wikipedia
Powered by Leaflet

Ones to watch - England Councils

The overall landscape of council control in England has seen a relatively steady Conservative decline. Back at the time of the May 2019 local elections, the last set we had just preceding a general election, the Conservative party had a disappointing night, losing 44 councils. But then, in December of the same year, they won a majority in the general election. By 2024, as the map and graph below show, Conservative fortunes are in a weaker position than 2019 (when they at least still held 143 councils). As of today, the number is down to 63 councils across England. After the May 2023 elections, Labour overtook the Conservatives as the largest party in local government for the first time in over 20 years.

 

In this situation, you might expect the main question of the night to be whether the Conservative decline will continue. This is partially true, but there are two reasons to be wary of this as the only lens for understanding these elections.

First, there is the political control of the councils up for election – where the Conservatives are defending comparatively few councils. The graphs below show that, as a consequence of the small number of elections, there are only 16 Conservative-controlled councils up for election this year. That’s not enough for us to expect major losses, in the style of May 2023, for the Conservatives on an England-wide scale (the headlines from last year of 1000 Conservative losses are mathematically impossible this year). Labour is defending many more councils this time around. As always, the major expected shifts are within the current NOC councils, where changes are more likely, especially because many of them are currently minority councils where a few seats could make a major difference to political control (including 22 Conservative minority councils). A few of the regions with more elections this year, such as the North West and North East, have large numbers of relatively safe Labour majorities (see the marginality graph below), so as always, the randomness of which councils are up for election this time will have a huge impact on the results.

 

 

Second, we shouldn’t only think about this as a question about the national successes or failures of the national parties because we should appreciate the localness of these local elections. It is tempting to think of these locals as the final big test of each party before the general election, but these elections also decide important policies on the ground for many millions of people across the country, and the councillors elected in May will be in office after the general election, making decisions and facing challenges regardless of the national result. Will the result in Thurrock, for example, tell us more about the relative strength of the national parties, or more about the political/local government situation in Thurrock? In this case, as in many others, the local nature of these local elections really matters.

With that said, where are the council elections this year, and which ones should you be watching after polls close on 2nd May?

East Midlands

 

 

To start with an easy one, there is only one council up for election in the East Midlands region, the city of Lincoln. Labour has held the majority control for 13 years (since 2011), although its majority is currently fairly small. That said, with only a third of seats up for election, and no party even close to challenging them, Lincoln is likely to stay under Labour’s control. This May will also mark the resignation of the Council’s longest-serving Leader, as 81-year-old, Ric Metcalfe heads into retirement after 42 years of service.

The remaining residents across the East Midlands will still have the opportunity to head to the polls for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. For those places lucky enough, they can also cast a vote for the new East Midlands Combined Authority – the outcome of a devolution deal made back in August 2022. Experienced candidates have been put forward across the parties, from a former MP to a current council leader and a mayor.

East of England

 

 

The East of England has many more competitions. Twenty different elections by our count, and a huge variety of different political contexts across the region.

The last few years have been particularly rocky for Thurrock due to commercial investment deals going south and unpaid loans. As a result, in 2022, Essex County Council took on financial control of the council; only to be followed by revelations of a £500m budget deficit and a Section 114 notice at the end of the year.

Thurrock is on a knife edge between Labour and the Conservatives with 15 seats up for election. They have a long history of flipping between both parties and landing in no overall control – which is where it currently sits. Just this February, the Conservatives lost control after suspending two of their own councillors for voting against the proposed financial strategy. Interestingly, 2024 will be the last year the thirds system is used in Thurrock as the council has been ordered to hold an all-out election in 2025, meaning all 49 seats will be up at the same time next year.

With an 8% council tax rise recently confirmed and evidently a lot of instability, residents are sure to have some strong feelings at this election. Perhaps a dark horse to watch out for is Reform UK as Thurrock’s past voting record shows some leanings towards the ideologically similar UKIP party. It wouldn’t be the first time public frustration drove votes away from the main parties.

Brentwood is similarly balanced, but this time between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Currently, the council sits under no overall control with a Liberal Democrat and Labour coalition in charge, after ending eight-years of Conservative reign last May. But with all seats up for election this year due to boundary changes, anything could happen on polling day.

In Norwich a third of the council’s total seats are up for grabs – one seat in each of the city’s wards. Labour currently have just under the number needed for a majority after four councillors resigned from the party back in November – citing a mismatch in principles with the national and local Labour party. Shortly after a further two councillors resigned and some more information came to light concerning internal rows over candidate selection for these elections and an apparently ‘toxic atmosphere’. Perhaps the in-fighting will be a concern for Norwich residents and help give the Green Party, who hold the second highest number of seats a chance to make more gains – after moving their seats from 11 to 13 in the last election.

Rochford is still one to play for after last year’s ending of two decades of Conservative majority, with a third of their seats up for grabs this year. In fact, a majority is certainly a possibility for Conservatives who currently find themselves just a few seats away from a majority. However, the independents and Resident’s Association candidates are both in a strong position to deny the Conservatives a majority once again.

In Three Rivers, the Liberal Democrats currently have a small majority. It’s worth noting that they have been the only party to hold a majority since 1988 showing clear favour with voters. There are a third of seats up this May, however, as history tells us, the chances of another party majority would be slim. Conservatives are currently the second biggest party, so the likelihood is that either the Liberal Democrat control remains or the council falls into no overall control.

In Harlow and Basildon, small Conservative majorities are about to be tested in full council elections. Labour has trailed behind – the last time Labour held Harlow was in 2021, and Basildon in 2000 – but there are signs that the tides could be turning. At the end of 2023, Basildon came under direct fire from Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove who said the council had a ‘persistent failure to meet milestones’.

North East

 

 

The map above says it all, there are a number of strong Labour majorities in places like Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead, although in Newcastle Labour’s majority is now reduced to eight. And then there is Hartlepool, which has been a bellwether seat for years now, both in council elections and parliamentary elections. The council has been in no overall control since 2019. In 2023, Labour made considerable gains, and this year need only two more seats to put them in full control of the council.

Although there are not many local councils likely to change hands in the North East, the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority will have its first election, covering the council areas of Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle upon Tyne, South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham (following the merger of the North East Combined Authority and the North of Tyne Combined Authority). This will be worth watching to see how well the former elected mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority does standing as an independent candidate (he was barred from the Labour selection process for the new mayoral role).

North West

 

 

There are several interesting contests in the North West.

There are two councils where no party has overall control, the Conservatives are the largest party, and Labour are second: Pendle and Hyndburn. In both of these councils, Labour could take a majority if they have a very good night, but it is much easier to imagine them knocking the Conservatives off the top spot, which would require only a few extra seats. In Pendle in particular, recent councillor resignations across the Labour party will make the prospect of gaining a majority more distant.

In Stockport, no single party has a majority, and there will be strong competition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom are within a stone’s throw of a full majority. In the 2023 elections, the Liberal Democrats won a handful of seats, and they have been running the council for years, but without a full majority – the last time any party did have a full majority was the Liberal Democrats way back in 2011.

No party has held a majority in Bolton since 2019, but Labour are now very close to regaining the majority they lost back then. In 2023 they won seven new seats, and a similar result this time would give them a full majority on the council.

The North West is also home to one of the safest councils in the country – Manchester, where Labour has nearly all of the seats, and a majority much larger than the third of seats up for election. There is also the directly elected Mayor of Salford, which is also unlikely to shift away from Labour control.

South East

 

The South East has the largest number of elections (28 this year) and there are several that could change hands and tip one way or another. Indeed, many are on a knife edge. Liberal Democrat Eastleigh is the only council in the region that could not flip this time around.

Labour, for example, is defending a tiny majority in Crawley, a council they have only had majority control over since 2022.

Hart is always an interesting contest, where the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Community Campaign Hart (CCH) are neck and neck, all with around a third of the seats. CCH and the Liberal Democrats have been running the council with a Liberal Democrat leader. The council remains an enduring example of how important local parties can be, and how looking under the hood at No Overall Control councils is important to understanding local dynamics. A lesson that is relevant across the South East, as Tandridge, with its governing coalition of independents and a residents’ association, demonstrates, or Runnymede, where no party has a majority mainly due to the strength of local parties.

Speaking of the importance of independents and local parties, Hastings has been governed by a coalition of independents with a leader from the Green party since the start of 2024, after differences between the national and local party led to the resignation of several Labour councillors from the party. Hastings is a council that is elected by halves every two years and it switched from Labour control to NOC in 2022 when the Green party took seats from Labour, although Labour remained the majority party. Hastings is definitely one to watch this year, given the split from the national Labour party, the rise of the Greens and the fact that it is having to deliver significant savings to avoid issuing a section 114 notice. It is also an area with a changing electorate as more people move to the borough from London – known locally as DFLs (down from London).

Basingstoke & Deane has been led by an Independent Forum councillor since May last year, with a Liberal Democrat deputy/co-leader, since the Conservatives lost their majority.

In 2023, the Liberal Democrats overtook the Conservatives as the largest party on Wokingham Council. Now, no party has an overall majority, but with a couple of new seats, the Liberal Democrats would be in a position to take full control for the first time since 1997, before the council was unitarised. Meanwhile, the Conservative party are defending a razor-thin majority in Adur, where they lost a few seats the last time elections were held back in 2022. The Liberal Democrats face defending a similarly small majority in Gosport, although their fortunes have been on the rise in the council in recent years – demonstrated when they gained the council from the Conservatives in 2022.

The Conservatives had a majority of one at Reigate and Banstead council after the 2023 elections, but the council has recently gone into no overall control meaning there are no longer any Conservative majority-controlled district councils in Surrey. No party is in an obvious position to challenge the Conservatives as the largest, but they could deny them the chance to regain the majority.

South West

 

 

In 2023, the elections in the South West produced some of the most dramatic results in the country, especially Labour winning Swindon from the Conservatives. Well, this year Labour will be defending this majority, where, although unlikely that the Conservatives will win back majority control of the council, Labour’s majority is small.

We can expect many eyes to be on the Conservative majorities in Gloucester and Dorset, both of which are small and the Liberal Democrats are strong contenders, especially considering their performance in the region last year and that all seats are up for election in both councils.

Stroud Council has been under No Overall Control for years, and since 2022 has been governed by a coalition of Greens, Independents and Liberal Democrats after a few Labour councillors – including the council leader – left the party and their position at the head of the coalition ended. This is one of those councils where the local context is all-important to understand the current composition of the council, but as the whole council is up for election this year, things could look very different by Friday 3rd May.

Finally, Bristol. Bristol has voted to abolish the position of the Mayor (Labour’s Marvin Rees since 2016), which will mean the relative power of councillors will increase as it shifts to a committee system. The composition of the council is itself very interesting. The Greens and Labour are practically neck and neck, although neither are obviously close to gaining overall control over the council. Eyes will be on this contest because the Greens taking majority control, or at least performing well, could indicate the possibility of success at the upcoming parliamentary election for a Bristol constituency.

West Midlands

 

There is only one major question in the West Midlands: will the Conservatives be able to hold on to the councils they are defending? In Redditch the Conservatives have a majority of two and the Labour party is not far behind. The whole council is up for election, so both parties will be aiming for a majority.

In Dudley, the Conservatives are in a slightly stronger position, but a whole council election following boundary changes could see this change. Labour has been steadily winning seats in the most recent elections, so this is definitely one to watch.

In Solihull, the Conservatives are defending another small majority, but this time the next largest party are the Greens. Only a third of seats are up for election, but that would be enough to deny the Conservatives a majority and tip the council in to no overall control.

The other major story in the West Midlands is the behind-the-scenes story on a few of the NOC councils. Every seat in Cannock Chase is up for election, following boundary changes, and the council is perfectly balanced between Labour and the Conservatives (at the time of writing). A Labour and Green coalition currently runs the council since the Conservatives lost their outright majority in 2023, but a whole council election represents an opportunity for everything to change, and Labour may be looking to gain an overall majority for the first time since 2019.

Labour and the Greens in Worcester are currently governing in coalition with a joint leadership and only a couple of seats between them. The whole council is up for election following boundary changes, so, again, things might look very different after the election. This one is hard to call with both Labour and the Greens picking up seats in recent years. Most definitely, one to watch.

The Conservatives in Rugby lost majority control of the council in 2023, and have been governing as a minority since. Worth watching this contest to see if either of the other major parties in Rugby, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, push the Conservatives into second place, or deny them their minority administration. However, with only a third of the seats up for grabs, this would be a tall order.

Yorkshire and the Humber

 

 

Hull has been one of the most interesting competitions in Yorkshire and the Humber, if not the whole of England, for years now. The Liberal Democrats took majority control from Labour in 2022, and have seen their position strengthen in recent elections, but the two parties are still relatively close in terms of seats, and even with only a third of seats up, it could all change again.

In Calderdale, on the other hand, there is no single party that looks to be in a good position to challenge Labour, but Labour’s majority on the council is small. However, it has been fairly small since they took control of the council in 2019, and only a handful of seats have changed hands there in the intervening years. One to watch just to see if Calderdale retains its remarkable stability. The council approved a near-5% council tax rise last month which will be fresh in voters minds.

Sheffield is like Hull but even closer. No party has overall control, Labour and the Lib Dems have almost exactly the same number of seats, and both parties are currently governing in coalition with the Greens.

In Kirklees, Labour has a razor-thin majority, and it is worth watching this contest to see if they manage to hold onto it. They have only had a majority since 2022, so keeping it will be their top priority.

Rotherham is our final one to watch for the local council elections. Labour has had majority control here since the 1970s, but the last time the whole council was up for election – back in 2021 – they lost a significant chunk of their seats. Worth watching to see if Labour can regain a more healthy majority on the council, or if their luck in 2021 is repeated.

Combined Authority elections

Aside from the local authority elections, there is another very important level of government having elections this year – the Combined Authority mayoral elections. This will include household names like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.

As we can see from the graph below, not everywhere is in a combined authority area, and a few of them don’t have elections this year.

What is a combined authority? As the IFG has noted, including London (which we have separated as a special case) more than half the people in the UK now live in combined authority areas. A combined authority is what it sounds like, a group of councils coming together to make decisions on policy areas that affect them all, such as transport between local authorities, or regional business policies. The more powerful combined authorities have a mayor, who is directly elected to lead the combined authority.

 

These combined authorities are worth watching during the election, particularly the Conservative defences in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley – Andy Street and Ben Houchen.

Nearly every constituent council in the Tees Valley combined authority are Labour-run (whether in majority, minority, or coalition control), so this one would be worth watching to see if the Mayoral position also flips. However, Ben Houchen’s convincing win in 2021, suggests Labour have a long way to go to take the mayoral seat.

The West Midlands was a closer contest at the last set of elections and is definitely one to watch this time. Andy Street is a recognisable public figure, and polling suggests a greater proportion of the electorate will vote in that contest than any other outside London. It is clearly a contest that matters to the residents of the West Midlands. Council control in the West Midlands is quite evenly split between the Conservatives and Labour, so a victory here will likely be seen as a symbolic victory in the region for the party that wins.

There are new combined authorities across the North East, York and North Yorkshire and the East Midlands. These are promising to be interesting contests – Rishi Sunak launched the Conservatives’ local election campaign in the East Midlands, indicating that the national party is interested in the region, and their candidate – MP for Mansfield and leader of Nottinghamshire County Council – Ben Bradley, is a known quantity in the region.

The North East Mayoral Combined Authority is partially made up of the existing North of Tyne combined authority, the mayor of which, Jamie Driscoll, is standing as an independent candidate following an internal Labour party controversy on the selection process. As a result, this competition will definitely be worth watching as the normal inter-party dynamics are likely to be further complicated.

This is the first time these mayoral elections will be held using First Past the Post, following the passing of the Elections Act (2022). It’s hard to say what effect this is likely to have on the results. Mechanically, it means that a candidate can now get a plural majority of the voters and win, much like with parliamentary elections, where before they needed to get at least 50%+1 of the first or second-preference votes. IFG commentary has argued that this change favours major parties, but the Constitution Unit wrote back in 2021: “The choice between SV and FPTP does not actually affect the result very often.” We will be in a better place to know if the change has affected any electoral dynamics after the election.

Police and Crime Commissioner elections

 

What is a Police Crime Commissioner?
A Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) is an elected politician whose job it is to manage an “effective and efficient” police force for their area. They have existed since 2012 and have three core roles: setting police budgets, scrutinising the performance of their police force, and commissioning criminal justice services. They also appoint the chief officer in their area. For more information, see the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners website.

The areas for PCCs are a little different to local authorities. For example, in the southwest, there is a single PCC for Devon and Cornwall, which covers a large number of different district and unitary councils as well as a county council.

The maps above are accurate at the time of writing, but legislation is currently being passed to move responsibilities to the mayor in several locations. Because of an ongoing legal review, it is difficult to say where we can expect this to happen, but the proposals are for the transition to be made in South Yorkshire and the West Midlands.

Given the nature of these elections, there is a chance that the PCC elections will primarily be viewed as a question of Conservative losses. This is true of all elections this year, but PCCs are a type of elected office where the Conservative party is unusually dominant. However, as with the other types of local elections, there is more to these contests than the fortunes of the major parties.

In this case, the main aspect we are interested in is turnout. Turnout across PCC elections is often low, even by the standards of local elections, and in places where there are PCC elections and no other elections, turnout is often very low indeed. This is important – public understanding and turnout are key to democratic elections, and disengagement from any level of representation needs to be recorded, understood, and ideally counteracted.

London Assembly

All 25 London Assembly member seats are up for election on 2 May. Fourteen members are elected to represent constituencies: Barnet and Camden; Bexley and Bromley; Brent and Harrow; City and East; Croydon and Sutton; Ealing and Hillingdon; Enfield and Haringey; Greenwich and Lewisham; Havering and Redbridge; Lambeth and Southwark; Merton and Wandsworth; North East; South West, and; West Central. Eleven members are elected to represent the whole of London.

In terms of the constituency elections, seats have always been won by Conservative or Labour candidates. In the current political climate, it is unlikely that any constituency seats will switch from Labour to Conservative. The main one to watch in this election is West Central, covering the City of Westminster, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. This has consistently delivered a Conservative assembly member but City of Westminster switched to Labour control in the last local council election so the constituency may swing to Labour for the first time in a GLA election. Croydon and Sutton is also one to watch as it might switch from Conservative to Labour at this time.

The only Liberal Democrat and Green Party seats have been won in Londonwide positions. In the 2021 GLA election, the Greens won three seats and the Liberal Democrats won two seats. Those minority parties may benefit from the national political climate, which will probably lead to Conservative losses in Londonwide seats. Or they may lose those seats if the electorate swings to Labour. London is a capital with a high population churn and an ever-changing electorate so is always difficult to predict in local and regional elections.

Technical note and data sources

The data for this project has been collected from council websites, the Open Council Data service, wikipedia and other relevant websites linked in the text. The graphs were made using geographical data sourced from the ONS licensed under the Open Government Licence v.3.0, and coded using the statistical programming language R with the following packages: leaflet; sf; rgdal; htmlwidgets; htmltools; tidyverse; rvest; stringdist; stringr; geojsonsf; raster.

 

Bookmark