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What are the key themes in England’s local elections on May 4th?

Public Affairs
What are the key themes in England’s local elections on May 4th?

By Harry Gilham, Account Director

On May 4th, Rishi Sunak will face his first big electoral test with the local elections in England. 230 local authorities are being contested this year, some with a third of the council up for election and others the entire council. The Conservatives are publicly declaring quite pessimistic expectations for these council ballots, so what key themes should businesses be looking out for and how could the local elections affect the national picture?

The last time these council seats were up for election was in 2019, at a time when there was deadlock in Parliament over the then Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. That year the Conservatives lost over 1,300 councillors and the main beneficiaries were smaller parties, namely the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and independents. Independent councillors rode a wave of anti-development sentiment, particularly in the Southeast. Former extremely safe “true-blue” councils, such as Guildford and Tandridge in Surrey and Uttlesford on the Hertfordshire/Essex border went from Conservative control to being led by independent groups, either on their own or in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. One thing for the housebuilding sector to look out for this year is whether the independents can maintain their seats, if the anti-development sentiment underpinning their rise continues.

Liberal Democrats looking to ride a clean river campaign for Blue Wall seats

The Lib Dems will also be looking to pick up seats from the Conservatives in the “Blue Wall”. They have been campaigning strongly now on the issue of river pollution, something that has been gaining increased media attention, with The Times running a “clean up UK rivers” campaign. Any Lib Dem gains in rural areas will no doubt be seen in part as a vindication on their English rivers platform and will likely lead to more coverage on this issue.

What are the prospects for the Labour Party in these local elections?

Labour also fared badly the last time these council elections were held. This year they will be hoping the results will show that Labour is a Government-in-waiting, picking up key bellwether seats. To claim progress, Labour will need to make inroads into their former “Red Wall” seats in areas like Stoke-on-Trent, Middlesborough, Dudley and Bolsover to name a few. They will also need to see gains in councils such as Swindon, Peterborough and Milton Keynes, all of which contain key parliamentary seats Labour will need to win in order to form a majority at the next general election.

Read: Can Keir Starmer lead Labour to victory at the next election?

Renewable energy and asylum housing amongst local issues that may sway how people vote

Some of the issues that come up in the local elections may also impact national policy making. Key themes include local development issues, for example housing, but also renewable energy developments. This is also the first time that voter ID will be required; these elections will offer clues to see how this affects turnout. Some areas where asylum seeker housing is proposed have elections this year; strong pushback from locals in these areas could lead to calls to review this policy.     

A devastating set of results for the Conservatives, those that are worse than they are publicly expecting, could well see some MPs question Rishi Sunak’s leadership. Alternatively, a better result will stabilise his position further and lend credence to the argument that he has settled the Conservative ship and is making good progress towards defending the Conservative majority at the next general election. If Labour do very well, expect to see further strengthening of the narrative that the next election is Labour’s to win.

Instinctif Partners will be hosting a local elections analysis event in May, where our expert political specialists will provide an in-depth assessment of the 2023 election results and how they may impact the national political landscape. Additionally, we’ll explore what these results could mean for your business, offering valuable insights that can help you better engage with your local government stakeholders.

For more information contact us here

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