Five things to look out for in the local elections

Voters will head to the polls on 2nd May for a critical set of local and mayoral elections. Aside from being the last big litmus test of public opinion ahead of the general election, the locals will directly impact the regulatory environment, infrastructure, workforce development, and overall economic conditions in which businesses operate. Ahead of next week, here are Headland’s five crucial developments to look out for.

1. Mayoral races in contested areas

Voters across England will choose 10 metro mayors, with particular focus on battlegrounds like the West Midlands and Tees Valley. Labour’s bid to unseat incumbent Conservative mayors in these regions could signal a significant shift in political dynamics. With voter turnout historically lower in mayoral elections, the rising engagement with metro mayors indicates a growing mandate for regional leadership, impacting negotiations with Whitehall and constituent councils.

Significant attention should be paid to the West Midlands, where Labour aims to unseat the incumbent Conservative mayor, Andy Street. Dudley has seen close contests between the Conservative and Labour parties, reflecting its status as a key battleground. Nuneaton in Warwickshire is another critical contest, with a history of shifting between Labour and Conservative control. This makes it a focal point for understanding shifts in voter sentiment, particularly in the Midlands. Similarly, in Tees Valley, a win against the popular Conservative mayor Ben Houchen would signal strong support for Labour in traditionally Conservative areas.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on Worcester, a council that’s undergoing elections for all its seats following a boundary review, which often leads to unpredictable results and heightened competition as parties contest newly drawn wards. For Labour, five incumbent metro mayors won their previous elections and are favourites to be re-elected: Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotherham in Liverpool City Region, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard in South Yorkshire and last but certainly not least, Sadiq Khan in Greater London. The outcome for West Yorkshire is key since it determines the Mayor who will work with five partner local authorities affecting the whole region.

2. Labour’s Gaza stance 

The Israel-Palestine conflict has reopened factional divisions within the Labour Party, with the party’s left-wing faction and Muslim MPs rebelling against the leadership’s initial response. 60 Labour councillors resigned in protest, and 56 Labour MPs defied the party whip to back an SNP amendment calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Independent candidates backed by well-funded campaigns are emerging to challenge Labour MPs who failed to support an immediate ceasefire. These independent candidates could siphon off votes from Labour and could complicate the party’s efforts to retain or gain control of key councils. These constituencies include Bethnal Green and Bow, held by shadow business minister Rushanara Ali, and Ilford North, where an independent candidate has already been installed to challenge shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

3. Surprises from the Greens & Lib Dems

An allied progressive vote against Labour could mean the Green Party has a chance in closely contested councils. In cities like Bristol, Labour’s centrist pivot could push traditional supporters towards the Greens who are seen as holding firmer on progressive policies and local governance issues. The same could be true in areas of Norwich, a city known for its strong environmental activism, plus a few Tory southern councils.

Similarly, Liberal Democrats are positioning themselves where they have historical strengths or where demographic shifts might favour their policies. Their strategy is partly focused on ‘Blue Wall’ constituencies, traditionally Conservative but where the Lib Dems see potential due to recent political shifts and local issues. This includes places like St Albans and Cheltenham, where they have previously performed well or where dissatisfaction with current Conservative policies could sway voters. 

4. Reform UK in Blackpool: How much will they eat into the Tory vote 

The same day as the local elections, Blackpool will be a focal point due to a by-election potentially influenced by the Reform Party. Given the historical context where UKIP previously swayed Conservative voters, the performance of Reform in Blackpool could indicate whether it poses a significant threat to the Conservatives by splitting the right-wing vote. 

Reform UK’s presence in local council elections has been limited, with the party currently having six elected local councillors, all in Derby. However, its performance in recent by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood has shown improvement, with Reform securing 13% and 10.4% of the votes, respectively. However, the party’s under-performance in by-elections suggests it may not be able to replicate recent successes in local elections on a national scale.

There is, however, an upside for the Tories: the switch to the first-past-the-post system for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. This system will likely benefit candidates with strong local recognition or those who can consolidate support effectively. While Reform is gaining visibility, winning seats is unlikely as FPTP doesn’t favour smaller parties without concentrated local support​.

5. Testing Tory nerves

Conservative members are losing patience with Sunak’s leadership. April polls show Rishi Sunak’s net satisfaction rating is at its joint-worst level in the history of Ipsos polling, which dates back to 1978. His net satisfaction is now equivalent to the worst ratings ever recorded for former Prime Minister John Major. Poor election results could heighten existing concerns among MPs about their prospects in the subsequent general election, leading to increased scrutiny of Sunak’s leadership. Addressing these internal disputes and presenting a united front is crucial for maintaining voter confidence in his leadership. 

A good day for Sunak would involve the Conservatives holding onto key councils and mayoralties, particularly in battleground areas like the West Midlands and Tees Valley. With new mayoral positions being contested and consequential seats up for election in councils like those in Dorset, Gloucester, and Redditch where Conservatives hold a narrow majority, targeted campaigns in these areas could help maintain or expand control​. In fact, if the Tories suffer a very minimal loss, like 100 council seats and loss of marginal councils, that would be considered a victory. 

These outcomes would have different implications for the political landscape, potentially influencing the tone and direction of national politics in the run-up to the general election. All will be revealed in the days after 2nd May.

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