By Joe Blackburn
Local elections might not be the central event of British politics, with the stakes being far lower than a General Election, but they are a vital event in the public calendar. Not only do they indicate the rough direction of public opinion, but they can dictate the way that councils spend their money and how local authorities help their citizens. Find out what to expect from the 2023 local elections, and what party officials think of their chances as the public go to the polls.
The State of Play Going Into The Elections
The 2023 local elections see vast swathes of the country voting for their representatives, whether they be in district councils, unitary authorities or as mayors. Many councils across the North are voting, including major cities such as Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sunderland and cities across the Midlands. 2019 is the last time that many of these seats were up for grabs.
In that election, the Conservatives and Labour both faced a slaughter. Theresa May, Prime Minister at the time, presided over a loss of over a thousand seats, with Jeremy Corbyn failing to make inroads and losing seats himself. Such significant losses provide both of the two major parties with fertile ground to regain votes and seize the narrative ahead of the General Election in just over a year.
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The Decline of the Conservative Party
“I don’t think electoral growth for the Conservative Party would be a bet I am willing to make, but I don’t think we’re going to see a catastrophic wipe-out either.” – Robert Ogden, Conservative councillor
There’s no getting away from it, the polls have not been friendly for the Conservative Party as of late. Immediately prior to Rishi Sunak becoming Prime Minister the average gap between the Labour Party and the Conservatives stood at 30% (according to Politico), and although the distance between the two has narrowed, Keir Starmer’s party still holds a fairly comfortable lead. Their popularity has fallen for obvious reasons. The previous PM lost his role due to scandal after scandal and the cost-of-living crisis is continuing to harm the population’s finances, the real question this May surrounds the extent to which the party’s hold over local councils collapses.
Conservative councillor Robert Ogden doesn’t believe such an electoral wipe-out is coming, but the results won’t necessarily be pretty. When asked about the potential results, Ogden stated that: “I doubt it will reflect the sky-high national polls we have been seeing for quite a while now. Consolidation would probably be the best hope.”
Electoral growth appears to be an impossibility for the party in the coming vote, but the councillor believes there is a strategy the party can use. He envisages a situation in which every candidate looks to “marry their own political philosophy with a love of their local area”. Local elections bring out a lot of local pride, and the Conservative Party will need to fight tooth and nail on a local level all across the country to counteract the national picture. It’s not looking pretty, but campaigners think it won’t be as ugly as the worst-case scenarios suggest.
A Rampant Labour Party Looking to Grow
“The numbers look promising, but we’ve been here before. I’m not counting any chickens.” – Labour campaigner, anonymised on request
Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is currently flying high in the polls. Whilst the leader has received repeated criticisms for a lack of public policy announcements, their main competition has crumbled under leadership crises and scandals, leaving the Labour Party relatively comfortable. Campaigners will be aware that the gap is narrowing in some polls, but there isn’t any sign of complacency from Starmer.
The same applies for campaigners that are working to secure votes. One anonymous Labour Party campaigner said: “We’ve seen polls that looked good before and been disappointed, and ones that looked bad where we’ve managed to scrape a result”. Thankfully for the campaign, there are several routes the party can follow. Emphasising the national picture presents the Conservative Party in a negative light, whilst discussing how Labour councillors have a positive effect on day-to-day life effectively captures these votes and secures more wards. The Preston Model in particular has been a point of discussion, presenting a method of boosting community wealth with evidence to support the strategy.
At a bare minimum, the Labour Party needs to look to recoup its losses from 2019. Even this will be something of a disappointment, however, considering the party’s place in the polls. The sky seems to be the limit, and key strategists across the party will use this as a litmus test to see just where Labour’s electoral potential is at the moment.
Liberal Democrat Development
“For the Liberal Democrats, localism is king. The party wins elections by focusing on the local issues and by being local champions for their areas.” – Liberal Democrat source, anonymised on request
The Liberal Democrats have had a relatively quiet time over the past few years. Brexit was their main claim to fame throughout the past few years with the party acting as the main ally of the European Union in UK politics, but after COVID shifted the narrative and the completion of the country’s split from the trade bloc, the party has been somewhat lost. Ed Davey’s party does have an opportunity in coming polls, however, as there are plenty of seats it can take away from a despondent Conservative Party. The leader has even stated his intention to target Labour votes in the South-West to win crucial swing seats, attempting to develop his party back to a place of power and become the kingmakers they were in 2010.
This hyper-targeting is something that an interviewer with a Liberal Democrat source also indicated. The source, who chose to remain anonymous in this article, stated that “the focus should be on the importance of good local service from your councillor”, with the party renowned for securing seats more consistently at a local level than in Parliamentary elections. In particular he noted that sewage was a major issue in rural areas that the party is targeting, especially since it’s a highly visible issue that people notice day-to-day.
When asked about their thoughts of Liberal Democrat prospects for the election, the source said they were “unsurprisingly optimistic for the party”. 2019’s local elections were an odd affair with the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents all surging amidst a Brexit-based Conservative and Labour collapse. With Independents tending to not stand repeatedly, “this undoubtedly presents an opportunity for the Lib Dems to pick up seats from Independents and localists elected on an anti-Conservative sentiment in 2019”. The party may not have too much space to grow after the last election’s results, but Ed Davey could lead his candidates to a strong night under the radar.
The Role of the Independents
Independents always have some role to play in local elections, but are in a unique position in 2023. When this selection of seats was last contested in 2019, Independents saw a gain of 604 seats as sentiments against both parties grew. There is an interesting split between the types of candidates in these seats, with the first being local interest parties. These are parties that always stand and have a solid foothold in their area. The Morley Borough Independents in Leeds, for example, hold every single seat on the town council. Local interest parties are fairly entrenched and grasp a big proportion of the vote share in some areas, regardless of the national political environment.
The other side of independents is people in the community that choose to stand because they want to make a difference. These are less entrenched and tend to be individuals, being far easier for larger parties to target and sweep aside. Weaker seats like these are sure to be the focus of the largest political parties in areas that they lost in 2019. You can expect to see the number of Independent councillors fall significantly in this election, with the seats that are lost coming down to which wards are happiest with their local councillors.
What to Expect From the 2023 Local Elections
Ultimately, you can expect The Labour Party to have a good night at the local elections. Whilst partially at the Conservatives’ expense, look out for a relative collapse in the number of Independent candidates, whilst the Liberal Democrats will look to make modest gains themselves. Vote share will be the best indicator of where the parties are at the moment, but the seats are where parties can really make an impact before the next General Election.
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