WHAT, WHERE AND WHEN
Forget the opinion polls, it’s time for real votes in real ballot boxes.
The local elections across England on Thursday May 3 will give us the biggest test of political opinion since last year’s snap general election, when Jeremy Corbyn gave Theresa May the fright of her political life and she lost her Commons majority.
Polls open at 7am and close at 10pm. 150 town halls and just over 4,000 council seats are up for grabs. More than seven million people are expected to cast their ballots.
Unlike last year’s local elections in rural county shires, this year most of the councils in play are in big cities and towns.
In many councils, just a third of the seats are being contested. But in all 32 London boroughs, as well as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, every single seat is up for election for the first time since 2014.
As part of this festival of democracy, elections take place in 34 metropolitan boroughs, 67 non-metropolitan districts, 17 ‘unitary’ authorities, five directly elected Mayors and one Metro Mayor for the Sheffield City region.
Don’t forget that the last time many of these seats were fought four years ago Ed Miliband was Labour leader, David Cameron was Tory leader, Nick Clegg led the Lib Dems and Nigel Farage was in his pomp at UKIP – and the elections were held on the same day as the European Elections.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
The clue is in the name. Local elections are often swung by local issues, from potholes to planning developments.
But all the parties try to spin out national lessons on the popularity of their leaders and the Government in Westminster, as well as that most unfathomable of all things, ‘the public mood’.
Bins or Brexit?
Well, in some Tory areas of London where the Remain vote was high in the EU referendum (Wandsworth had a massive 75% for Remain and just 25% Leave), we could find out. In some Brexit-backing areas in the north and midlands, the Tories ate into Labour territory in last year’s election and will be looking to make gains of their own (in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, for example).
The economy, stupid?
The Tories are hoping that their handling of the economy, with record employment levels, will resonate with voters, as much as low council taxes, in Conservative boroughs. As Jeremy Corbyn made clear in his final Prime Minister’s Question Time on the eve-of-poll, Labour is hoping that the public will react against years of Tory cuts to services nationally and locally.
Like last year, Corbyn has tried to make this election a referendum on ‘austerity’. If he gains councils like North East Lincolnshire or Kirklees in Yorkshire, he may think the message is just as powerful.
Windrush or anti-semitism?
A few weeks ago, the Tories picked up on the doorstep that votes were worried about Corbyn’s stance on Russia and Syria. They assumed that the Labour anti-semitism row would impact on places with big Jewish populations like Barnet (and Prestwich in Bury).
But in the past few days, some Tories have worried that the Windrush row has undermined May’s image so much that it could be difficult to get ‘liberal conservatives’ in places like London to turn out to vote. In seats with large minority ethnic communities, the Commonwealth migrants scandal could really mobilise Labour votes more than ever before.
May 3 could spell the final nail in the coffin of UKIP. Four years ago, it fought 2,193 of the seats contested. This time it has just 540 candidates and is defending just 125 seats. Given that it will lose all its MEPs next year as the UK exits the EU, and has no MPs, the threat of a collapse at councillor level will prompt the question whether it is even a viable political party anymore. The fascinating thing will be to see where the UKIP votes go – to Labour or the Tories? Basildon, Thurrock, Cannock Chase and Great Yarmouth will tell us.
In contrast to the Kippers, the Greens are contesting more than half of all the seats across England. Despite being squeezed by Corbyn in recent years, the option of splitting votes in a ward means the environmentalists could do better than some think. Oxford, where half the seats are up for election, could be a nice measure.
Lib Dem healthcheck
The 2017 election yielded the Lib Dems just a few more Parliamentary seats and they are still really suffering in the national polls. They are desperate to make at least modest gains at local level to start the long rebuilding process they need. They need a big swing to win back Tory boroughs like Kingston and Richmond and will want to show progress in other Tory areas like Maidstone and South Cambridgeshire.
THREE KEY BATTLEGROUNDS
Barnet (expected declaration time 4am)
The 2017 general election showed that London is more than ever a Labour city. But while Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the capital drove the surge, there are medium-term demographic changes that also point to big problems for the Tories. And Barnet is a classic area where those changes have been keenly felt.
This borough is famously home to Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley seat and has never been run by Labour since it was first created in 1965. But in recent years the party has increased its presence and it now has 30 councillors, just one behind the Tories.
Activists report a ‘remarkable response’ on the doorstep in recent weeks in the crunch ward of High Barnet. This is a ward Labour has never won, and where it usually comes third, but it could take it following a big increase in younger, more diverse residents – many of whom have been priced out of flats in nearby Camden and Islington. If Labour can win High Barnet and get at least one councillor in Child’s Hill ward, it could squeak a working majority.
Even Corbyn’s critics in the party believe that the anti-semitism row, while having upset many voters, won’t do damage in key wards. The council has a big Jewish population yet it tends not to be concentrated in marginal wards. Among the wards in play, West Hendon has been held by Labour for 40 years and is not thought at risk. In Hale, and Child’s Hill, activists report that voters are reassured by the strong local Labour Jewish tradition and the need to topple the Tories.
Trafford (declaration time 2am)
Jeremy Corbyn kicked off his local elections campaign in Trafford, which is one of only two Tory-run metropolitan boroughs in England. It is also the only bit of blue on the map of Greater Manchester. Stuffed full of some of the wealthiest homes in the North West, it has only briefly been under Labour rule in the 1990s. Yet the Conservatives need to lose just two seats and the council will be plunged into ‘No Overall Control’ territory.
The problem for Labour is that it to take control itself it will need an unprecedented victory in Tory areas, and not just its own heartlands in the north end of the borough near Old Trafford football ground. Last year’s Greater Manchester Mayoral election saw Andy Burnham win the true blue ward of Hale Central, but local Labour MPs don’t expect a repeat of that shock result.
There is a worry among some Tories however that they could lose a ward in Altrincham. That would matter not just locally but also down in Westminster. Why? Because the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady is the local MP.
Dudley (declaration time 3am)
This West Midlands council has changed hands regularly between Labour and the Tories over the years. Its Parliamentary seats are just as volatile and just as sought-after. Labour’s Ian Austin clung on in last year’s election (by just 22 votes) in Dudley North, while neighbouring Mike Wood nearly doubled the Tory majority to 7,730 in Dudley South.
The council is officially ‘No Overall Control’ but is run by an alliance of 28 Tories and six UKIP councillors. Labour has 35 seats. Just what happens to the UKIP votes is the key test, so watch for their seats in wards like Sedgley. The council is on such a knife-edge that it could end up with either Labour taking control or the Tories ending up as largest party.
One indication of just how important the borough is came last week when Theresa May herself staged a quick campaign visit. But Corbyn too has been on the stump last month.
One veteran council watcher told me this week that the thing that unites all the parties in these elections is fear: fear of calling it wrong in areas where their reception on the doorstep seems positive.
An unnamed Lib Dem MP thinks his party could win both every target seat from the Tories in Richmond, and none. A senior Shadow Cabinet minister said the same about Labour’s chances in a string of councils. “Everybody is burned by the general election, when virtually nothing went to plan,” said my source. This is true, particularly outside the M25.
After the results, there’ll be the usual battle to spin them. The number of councils that change hands is likely to be small, given most urban areas are already run by Labour. But the number of councillors overall will be more telling. Some party insiders think it needs 8,000 in England to be on course to win the next election.
The projected share of the national vote will be another measure. Labour underperformed in 2014 under Miliband, not least as that year’s elections coincided with the height of UKIP’s popularity. The party will improve on its 31% share four years ago, but so will the Tories. The question is who benefits most from that UKIP collapse.
As the LSE’s Tony Travers has pointed out, Labour in many ways ought to be well ahead of the Conservatives, eight years into a Tory-led government. He also points out that Labour’s vote share in London is a misleading 15 points higher than its national share. And outside London, it’s much lower.
A Good Night For Corbyn
Labour has played a terrible game of ‘expectations management’ in the campaign, allowing some to so talk up the chances of winning Tory flagships Westminster and Wandsworth that not doing so may look like an anti-climax. In both boroughs, Labour would need huge swings to have a hope of victory. But no one wants to call it, in either party.
If there is a political earthquake in Westminster (declaration due 2am), the first clue come in Little Venice ward. One Labour activist in Wandsworth (3am) tells me their canvass returns and postal votes are encouraging. Winning either of the two flagships would be spectacular triumphs and terrify Tory MPs.
Still, winning Barnet would be a symbolic triumph too, given Labour has never won power there before. Few have talked as much about Hillingdon (4am), but if the Tory run council there fell to Labour, the party would start seriously thinking that it could topple Boris Johnson (his Uxbridge constituency is within the borough boundary) at the next election.
In London as a whole, it is on course to reduce the Tories to their lowest ever councillor total (below the awful 519 in 1994). In some areas, there could be near-wipeout, with either no councillors or just a handful.
Taking Trafford, not just depriving the Tories of their majority, would be another impressive result. North East Lincolnshire (3am) and Kirklees (1am) are expected to turn red. Taking Swindon (1am) shouldn’t be too hard, given the Tories have a one-seat majority, but it would still be significant given the town retains two crucial Tory marginal seats that were red in the New Labour years. Following Windrush, the party would also love the PR value of increasing its majority in Hastings (3pm) council, Amber Rudd’s own backyard.
Taking back UKIP voters to win Thurrock (5am) – where 17 UKIP councillors quit this year - would give Corbyn hope of winning a crucial Parliamentary seat there. Similarly, taking Kipper votes in Great Yarmouth (1pm) would be all the sweeter as Tory chairman Brandon Lewis holds the Westminster constituency. In many ways the real test will be in three-way contests in Colchester, Portsmouth and St Albans: making inroads there really would suggest a breakthrough.
A Good Night For May
Holding on to Barnet would allow the PM to really crow, given this is Labour’s number 1 target in London. She’ll be even more delighted if the Tories become the largest party in key West Midlands town halls like Dudley or Walsall (where veteran Labour MP David Winnick was toppled last year by Tory Eddie Hughes for the first time in 40 years).
Mopping up UKIP votes in Thurrock (5am), Basildon, Cannock Chase or Great Yarmouth would be serious progress too.
Taking South Lakeland (one of the latest results due, at 6pm) from the Lib Dems (Tim Farron’s backyard) would also represent a very good result. The Tories only need one gain to win Peterborough council (2am) and after their loss of the Parliamentary seat last year would start to believe they have a chance regaining it.
Some Conservatives think that they have a realistic chance of taking Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, where all the ward boundaries have been redrawn. The Tories haven’t won outright control of the authority since the 1970s.
And a victory would worry further local Labour MP Paul Farrelly, who has a majority of just 30 in this heavily Leave-voting area. Nearly a year after the disastrous snap election, and eight years into Tory rule at Westminster, any gains at all would be some achievement.