England has been awash with elections recently.
Since 2015, English voters have had to make big decisions about the shape of our government, our relationship with the EU and whether we think Theresa May is really any good. To many voters, 2018 will seem like a very welcome year off from having to make an electoral decision.
Across large swathes of England however, there will be no respite. There are local elections afoot.
Over 4,000 council seats, in around 150 councils are up for grabs. All of London’s 32 boroughs, large metropolitan boroughs like Manchester and Birmingham, and smaller authorities like Swindon, Thurrock, Watford and Trafford are being contested. It’s a diverse spread which provides both opportunities and headaches for all the English parties.
Since the turn of the year, Conservative supporters have been talking down their chances. Given the media coverage of local elections will focus on the outcomes in London boroughs and other large cities, it is easy to see why. In the 2017 general election, Labour pressed its advantage among young, metropolitan voters, building on their historic support from the urban working class. This means the expectations on Labour to consolidate their grasp on the city is high. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will have to take not only Barnet and Wandsworth Council, but also make a good fight of traditionally Conservative boroughs like Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea for their night to be a clear success.
Expectations are so low for the Conservatives, there is even talk of the Liberal Democrats (remember them?) retaking Kingston and Richmond. A blow for the Conservatives after the party fought so hard to stamp out support for their former coalition partners in the South of the capital.
Labour will be faced by its own challenges in the capital from the plucky opposition of Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents. In an attempt to stay relevant, these parties have focused on presenting themselves as primary scrutineers to keep Labour honest when they romp home in councils like Hackney, Islington, and Lambeth. The biggest threat to Labour will likely be in Tower Hamlets, where the party faces challenges from two left wing, ethnically diverse local parties, the People’s Alliance for Tower Hamlets (Path) and the Aspire party. These have regularly performed well in the borough, holding the mayoralty under disgraced Lutfur Rahman, and could be in with a shot of stealing the position and the council from Labour.
While attention may focus on London, it won’t be the full story of the evening. More than half the wards up for election are outside the capital and the difference in demographics may mean the Conservatives will be in for some good news elsewhere.
Councils like Swindon, Trafford and Portsmouth will provide a barometer of the political mood outside of London, which has historically been a Labour stronghold. Whether the Conservatives can hold on to their status as the largest party in these bellwether authorities may tell us more about the future outcome of a general election than the contests in London. Areas like these will be part of the battle map for a future general election, and the local election results will be the first test of who has the advantage at this point in the electoral cycle.
The Conservatives held on in the 2017 general election in part due to their ability to unite leave supporting voters, who are spread more widely across English councils than London centric remainers. The party was also successful in the local elections in 2017 through the same method, and will hope this method works once more. When these wards were last contested, UKIP was at its peak gaining over 150 councillors. Now that the party’s support has fallen in to the low single digits, the Conservatives may be able to pick off wards and voters to defend against increased support for Corbyn’s Labour.
Labour will also be worried that the cadre of young voters, which helped it claim victory in unexpected seats last year, just won’t turn out. Labour’s election chief Andrew Gwynne MP fears the local elections will be decided by the over 55s, weakening the party’s chances in London. When turnout is usually between 25 and 45 per cent it is hard to disagree. The party is diverting more resources to increase youth turnout in key London councils however this is far from ideal. We would have initially expected Labour to have some of these councils locked up considering early predictions, but the wobble puts the party’s election plans in doubt.
A lingering question over this election is the impact of national politics. Labour hopes that fatigue with eight years of a Conservative led government, combined with local dissatisfaction with Conservative council cuts, will propel it to victory. Frustration with Brexit and private sector service delivery may also help Labour to win over swing voters. The Conservatives meanwhile have been waging a pothole politics campaign, focused on cheaper councils and local representation, with the party hoping bread and butter issues distract from the national scene. It may be that both parties’ campaigning gambles pay off, reflecting the more divided times we live in now.
After May 3rd will come the real challenge for 150 new council administrations. Local government has continued to see its budgets cut year after year, with one even going bust. This will be a headache for any incoming administration, with these problems likely to persist whichever party wins control of the local town hall. Services will likely continue to be cut, with some, like social care, arguably at breaking point. It will require a deft administration to manage this situation in local authorities and still deliver on local manifesto promises.
Local government and the changes to the services it provides can have a large and direct impact on residents. Local government elections also have a clear impact on the direction of national politics and policy, as politicians will scramble to address perceived problems with policy or the people in charge.
Despite their importance, the political narratives and the implications of this election, local government rarely attracts that much interest. In a world of big developments like Brexit, Trump and Russian spies, potholes and bin collections just don’t grab people’s attention. Jeremy Corbyn could take a big leap forward with a resounding victory, or Theresa May could prove to her critics why she was worth keeping around after the 2017 election. Yet is it unlikely many people outside the Westminster village will notice, with turnout usually very low.
To most people these local elections and the results of them will be met with ambivalence… and maybe a renewed complaint about that pothole down the road.