The local electoral landscape is undergoing a quiet revolution.
At the same point in the cycle four years ago, more than 9,300 seats in 279 authorities were being contested. This time there are 1,000 fewer seats falling vacant across 248 councils with some being merged or abolished, others having their elections cancelled as they await the same fate, and yet others either moving to a new pattern of elections or having often quite sharp reductions in councillor numbers following review by the Local Government Boundary Commission.
One thing that does not appear to have changed is the two-party grip on English local government. Labour and the Conservatives together have majority control of over 80% of councils with elections and a similar preponderance of councillors. And, despite the national level political turmoil, it is unlikely that these elections will dent that pattern to any great extent.
The Liberal Democrats have had some recent successes and are gradually building again, but in carefully targeted and discrete areas; Ukip is dead in the water; the Greens have made only a patchy impact; and the newly formed group of Independent MPs simply do not have the resources or personnel to mount a local level challenge.
That said, and given that the 2015 contests coincided with David Cameron’s general election victory, it would be a surprise if Labour and the Liberal Democrats did not recover ground and ought to make gains into three figures of seats each.
The Liberal Democrats have won more council seats from the Conservatives than has Labour over the past two years, and have registered a bigger improvement in share of the vote in those they have contested. The Conservatives – who made more than 500 gains in 2015 – could lose somewhere in the range of 400 seats, but mitigate that if they directly benefit from the unwind of the Ukip vote. There are some 170 seats Ukip won in 2015 which now look almost certain to change hands.
For more than 40 years the metropolitan boroughs were an analyst’s dream. Every elector had the opportunity to vote in three years out of four, and a direct comparison of outcomes was easily made. Now, however, three councils – Birmingham City Council and Doncaster and Rotherham MBCs – have quadrennial all-out elections and the symmetry has been lost.
That notwithstanding, Labour continues to dominate this tier of local government and will have hopes of winning majority control in at least two of the only six boroughs it doesn’t currently control. The party is defending 523 seats from 2015; in those same places it did rather better in 2018, winning about 570 seats. Certainly, reprising last year’s results would give Labour a majority in both Calderdale and Trafford MBCs – in each case for the first time in at least 15 years. Competition has been much tougher in the West Midlands though with the Conservatives appearing to benefit more than Labour from a collapse in Ukip support in 2018. A similar pattern this year will threaten Labour’s ambitions.
With Labour and the Conservatives together holding nine in 10 of all metropolitan seats, it is no surprise to see the Liberal Democrats as mainly bit part players. They are a long way behind in second place in a handful of councils and can challenge on relatively equal terms only in Stockport MBC. There is an outside chance they could again become the largest party here in what is certain to remain a hung authority.
With the abolition of all nine current councils in Dorset, two new unitaries take their place. It is almost certain though that both Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council and Dorset Council will return big Conservative majorities and be of little wider electoral interest.
The majority of the other unitary authorities also look sure bets either to retain their current party control or to remain without a clear majority. In Derby City Council, for example, the Conservatives did better last year than in 2015 but deposing Labour as the largest party is probably the best they can achieve. In both Bedford BC and Brighton & Hove City Council a substantial shift in votes is needed for either Labour or the Conservatives to take outright control. In City of York Council there is an almost equal spilt between those two parties and the Liberal Democrats with all three groups embroiled in potentially damaging controversy locally.
Labour has a small cushion in both Southampton City Council and Telford & Wrekin Council. A repeat of 2018 will see the party safe in the former; in Telford & Wrekin it is vulnerable in three wards split with the Conservatives four years ago. Boundary changes in Cheshire West & Chester Council may slightly favour the Conservatives over Labour which currently holds power, and there could be a rare direct exchange of power in an authority where those two parties won every seat bar one in 2015. A similar outcome, although in the other political direction, is an outside possibility in Swindon BC.
The Conservative hold on the districts is almost as solid as Labour’s in the metropolitan boroughs as they defend nearly three-quarters of all councils and seats up for election. More than that, in 80 of the 119 councils they currently control they have two-thirds or more of all councillors, making any significant change very unlikely.
In several districts a drop in the number of seats following boundary changes may change the political weather. In Carlisle City Counil the new ward map could help Labour; in Preston City Council, on the other hand, Labour’s majority looks to have been put under pressure by a reduction in councillors from 57 to 48.
Structural change sees three entirely new districts being formed. East Suffolk, West Suffolk and Somerset West & Taunton councils have each been created by the amalgamation of two existing authorities, and each looks a Conservative banker.
Elsewhere, it is political defections that have complicated matters. In Gravesham BC in Kent personality and policy differences led to the ruling Conservatives splitting in two to leave Labour as the largest single party. In nearby Dover DC (which drops from 45 to 32 members) it is Labour councillors who are at odds with each other with the former group leader joining with a colleague in a new ‘Progressive’ group. Disunited parties do not tend to fare well at the ballot box.
Several of the contests for directly elected mayors promise, as usual, a shake-up of the established political order. Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby in Leicester City Council was the only mayoral candidate elected on the first ballot in 2015 and will expect a similar result this time. Labour’s other defence, Middlesbrough Council, is on paper an ultra-marginal, but the party’s new nominee Mick Thompson should win quite comfortably given no repeat of a strong Independent challenge.
The undoubted star of the 2015 mayoral battles was the Liberal Democrats’ Dave Hodgson who won Bedford even as his party was finishing a distant third at the concurrent general election in all three constituencies between which the borough is divided. Once again this year he will hope to get over the line thanks to the second votes of eliminated candidates.
In both Copeland BC and Mansfield DC such transfers were key in delivering a majority for Independent candidates Mike Starkie and Kate Allsop. They both run again and will rely on improved name recognition and their claimed record in office to keep the main parties at bay. In Mansfield the Conservatives did not contest the 2015 election, but having elected their own MP in 2017 will now have a presence on the ballot paper. It could be very close.
There is also the inaugural contest for the mayor of the North of Tyne CA covering Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, North Tyneside Council and Northumberland CC. This should be a shoo-in for Labour, but there was a controversial candidate selection process mirroring national disputes in the party. The co-chair of Newcastle Momentum and novice councillor Jamie Driscoll beat Nick Forbes, leader of both Newcastle and the Local Government Association Labour group, for the nomination. But it would still be a shock if Labour doesn’t prevail.
copy of unitary authorities
*structural boundary changes mean comparisons are not exact