Local Elections: Here’s What’s At Stake On ‘Super Thursday’

Local elections are boring, right? Wrong.

Today’s so-called “super Thursday” local elections will set the tone for politics over the coming months, and could have a dramatic impact on the fortunes of Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, and the rest.

With around 5,000 seats up for grabs in 145 English councils, thirteen elected mayor races, battles for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, and the crunch by-election to select a new MP for Hartlepool, you’d be forgiven for finding it a little confusing.

But with the help of a couple of elections experts – Tory peer Lord Hayward and YouGov’s Patrick English – we’ve got you covered.

Here’s what to look out for:

Hartlepool hustle

Boris Johnson poses for a "selfie" photograph as he meets members of the public while campaigning in Hartlepool
Boris Johnson poses for a "selfie" photograph as he meets members of the public while campaigning in Hartlepool
WPA Pool via Getty Images

Much of the pre-election focus has been on the one contest where a new MP will be elected, in the coastal town of Hartlepool, County Durham.

Held by Labour, it was one of the so-called former “red wall” seats that didn’t turn Tory in 2019, when Johnson rode the Brexit wave to secure a thumping 80 seat parliamentary majority for the Tories.

People are so excited about this seat as it’s the first test of whether the prime minister can keep hold of first-time Tories who lent him their votes in 2019.

It’s also the first electoral test of Starmer’s strategy since becoming Labour leader a year ago, since when he has made a big play of winning back largely white working class “red wall” voters.

Unfortunately for him, a bombshell Survation poll put the Tories a whopping 17 points ahead this week, suggesting they were taking a large share of those who in 2019 backed the Brexit Party, which is now defunct.

But while constituency polls are notoriously difficult, the Labour mood isn’t great about Hartlepool.

English says: “Losing a seat that’s been Labour since its conception, that Peter Mandelson used to hold, that wasn’t even taken by the Tories during the scaling of the ‘red wall’ in 2019, there’s no spin you can put on that that says that’s good.”

‘Red wall’ redemption?

Pipe bands and banners parade through Durham during the Durham Miners' Gala
Pipe bands and banners parade through Durham during the Durham Miners' Gala
Owen Humphreys - PA Images via Getty Images

As well as Hartlepool, several “red wall” councils are going to the polls, which could spell more bad news for Labour.

The Tories’ “minimum expectation” will be to take Dudley, an historic marginal, given their lead in the national polls, according to English.

But if they take another two or three, for example the likes of Wolverhampton or Warrington, it would be a “bad night for Labour and a good night for the Conservatives”, he says.

According to Hayward, the Tories will also be looking to improve their position in the likes of Bolton and Bury, and could even take seats where they have little or no representation, such as Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster, Barnsley and Wakefield.

There is even talk of Durham and Sunderland being on the line, which if they went Tory would be another stunning result in the “red wall”.

Durham, as Hayward puts it, is the home of the Miners’ Gala and the “ultimate bastion and representation of Labour domination of the Midlands and the north”.

But in reality, Labour should be looking to hold councils like this and take back places like Northumberland, Derbyshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, where it suffered a set of appalling local election results in 2017 when Jeremy Corbyn was leader.

Overall, we could well see a “natural continuation” in the realignment of British politics following the Brexit vote, English says.

This could lead to huge pressure in Labour for a change in approach, or even leader.

Mayor trailblazers

Starmer speaks with Tracy Brabin, Labour's West Yorkshire mayor candidate
Starmer speaks with Tracy Brabin, Labour's West Yorkshire mayor candidate
Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

Labour and Sadiq Khan are set to once again win big in London, and the party seems likely to have the first directly-elected female metro mayor with Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire.

But as ever with British politics at the moment, the focus is on two “red wall” battles in the West Midlands, held by Tory Andy Street, and Tees Valley, where his party colleague Ben Houchen is mayor.

The polls once again point to convincing Tory holds in both these seats.

But Labour’s West Midlands candidate Liam Byrne – he of “there is no money left” infamy – is bullish, suggesting last month that he should beat Street “easily”.

If Byrne is right, a Labour victory in the largest city region outside London, with a population of nearly three million people, would be huge for Starmer.

Similarly, toppling Tory golden boy Houchen in Tees Valley would be a huge win for Labour, although it seems unlikely.

Starmer may however be celebrating victory over the Tory West of England mayor Tim Bowles, which could represent another side to the realignment of UK politics.

Remainers’ revenge?

Anti-Brexit campaigners in 2019
Anti-Brexit campaigners in 2019
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

While much of the focus is on the “red wall”, English points out that “one of the most underplayed elements of the ‘red wall’ discourse is that Labour held it for three elections and lost them all”.

He suggests the party could be thinking about building a new coalition of voters, starting with Tory areas that voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.

While these are unlikely to be enough to win a general election, Labour will be looking to make gains in the likes of Trafford, in Manchester, which could mirror areas of London like Putney “where the Tories previously had a hold”, Hayward says.

English adds: “If places like Hartlepool or Blyth Valley aren’t going back to Labour any time soon, or marginals like Tamworth and Corby, Labour needs to think about new coalitions of voters.

“Can they pick up ‘blue wall’ seats? Can they go back to those marginals and pick them up?”

Independence woman?

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon visits a fish processing plant as she campaigns in Aberdeen
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon visits a fish processing plant as she campaigns in Aberdeen
RUSSELL CHEYNE via Getty Images

Perhaps the most important election of the night is north of the border, where Nicola Sturgeon is hoping to secure an SNP majority to stick rocket boosters under her drive for Scottish independence.

The SNP are polling around 50%, according to Ipsos MORI, although the pollsters say it is still “too close to call” whether they can gain a majority.

If Sturgeon falls short, she may be able to rely on the pro-independence Greens in the Scottish parliament.

But anything less than an outright win for the SNP would help Johnson, who is desperate to avoid the existential threat of another independence referendum and the potential break-up of the union on his watch.

Elsewhere, the Tories are locked in a tight battle for second place with Labour, who will hope new leader Anas Sarwar can demonstrate some progress on the long road to winning back former strongholds that could prove key in any future general election victory.

When will we know the results?

They are likely to drip in slowly from the early hours of Friday over several days through to Monday.

With rain forecast, what better way to spend the weekend than watching the parties’ fortunes rise and fall.


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