By Rebecca Coleman
There are a lot of things you can always bank on about local elections in England. And besides receiving approximately 12 Lib Dem ‘Focus’ leaflets through the door, the biggest certainty is that they will be volatile, with a potent mix of local and national issues coming to a head. But this promises to be an election cycle like no other, as the effect of the pandemic makes itself apparent, both politically and logistically. The political landscape in which they will take place has undergone a seismic shift since the last round of local elections in 2019, which saw Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable battle it out over Brexit. It saw the Lib Dems surge across England whilst the Labour Party lost 84 seats, and the Conservatives 1330, leading Professor Sir John Curtice to declare that the days of the two parties dominating local politics were over.
This election could also see another truism, that the governing party performs poorly, thrown out with the rest of the rulebook. Boris Johnson is betting on a ‘vaccine bounce’ after a first year in power plagued by the virus. Indeed, polling by Savanta has suggested that support for the Tories is increasing amongst groups that have received the vaccine. When Johnson announced that the local elections would go ahead on 20January, just under 5 million people had received a vaccine dose. Now, the NHS is ramping up to put 5 million ‘jabs in arms’ every single week. And of course, it does not hurt that those age groups first up for the jab are the ones most likely to turn out to vote either.
Labour is relying on this not taking place, and there is competing evidence to suggest that it won’t. Just this week, polling by The Independent found that 41% of the population doesn’t trust Boris to do the right thing, as the gap between the two parties narrowed to a measly two points. Labour’s concern is catching wavering Conservative voters, hoping that Keir Starmer’s ‘steer calmer’ spoonerism is more palatable to voters than his predecessor, coupled with a strategy that leans heavily on the Conservatives mishandling of the pandemic. Then again, only 23% of the public think that a Labour government under Keir Starmer would have done better at stopping the spread of coronavirus, and only 8% think that he would have vaccinated more people, suggesting that voter distrust may not just limited to the governing conservatives.
So, where will voters go? One of the casualties of this election is likely to be independent candidates, who do not have the resources and platform to conduct COVID secure campaigns. Meanwhile stalwarts of the local elections, the Liberal Democrats, enter the local elections in a strong position after their incredible gain of 705 new councillors in 2019. New leader Ed Davey will be looking to build on this success and chip away at Conservative voters disillusioned after a year of lockdown. However, whilst every vote in 2019 for the Lib Dems was lauded as a ‘vote to stop Brexit’, it is unclear what a vote for the party really means this time. Councils in the ‘yellow halo’ area will be the ones to watch, as the Lib Dems try to establish a new heartland within the Ox-Cam Arc.
Voters in England this year will be electing everything from district councillors to London Assembly members and Police & Crime Commissioners. The seats up for election were last contested in 2016 and 2017, with mayoral elections, which were scheduled for last year but subsequently delayed, also taking place.
This totals roughly 5,000 council seats that are in play across the country. New combined authorities of Buckinghamshire Council and North Northamptonshire Council will go to the polls for the first time, as will the electorate of the new West Yorkshire Combined Authority, who will elect their inaugural mayor.
Most broadly, the Conservatives and Labour will look to keep hold of and consolidate councils where they are traditionally strong. For the Conservatives, focus will be on keeping control of the county councils. Of the 21 up for election, they control 19 outright, with 2 in coalition. Similarly, Labour will be looking to retain their control of the three metropolitan boroughs up for all-out election in their traditional strongholds of Doncaster, Rotherham and Salford.
However, it is unquestionably the mayoral elections that will capture our attention over the weekend. Whilst in London Sadiq Khan looks set to win on first preferences alone, an unprecedented feat, the results of many of the 12 other mayoral elections are far from certain. Here are a few one’s worth keeping an eye on:
It’s fun to play for the WMCA
The key battleground of this election is the mayoral seat of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Conservative Andy Street’s surprise election as the authority’s inaugural Mayor in 2017 was one of the first cracks in Labour’s Red Wall, and the Tories will be keen to prove that they still have a firm grip on the region. Promising ‘‘the most rapid investment and increase in employment this region has ever seen,’ Street will be taking full advantage of his position as incumbent to set out his vision for the future of the region over the coming weeks.
Equally Liam Byrne, currently MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, is keen to take the victory for Labour, and as the centrist candidate of choice, for Keir Starmer. Both candidates are focussed on the region’s recovery from the pandemic and how they will spend the authority’s £900m budget for the coming year. For Mr Byrne, the green industrial revolution is key, aiming to make the region ‘the green workshop of the world’ by promoting youth employment.
(Get Your Kicks) on Route 366
Whilst the Conservatives have certainly been keen to demonstrate their support of Andy Street and the West Midlands, (he even got a mention in the Budget speech), the recently announced Hartlepool by-election could shift focus. For the Tories, the surprise contest in an area where their support has steadily increased over the past four years is a rare opportunity to take a seat from Labour in the middle of the election cycle.
Results from the Tees Valley and West Yorkshire mayoral elections will be crucial, not to mention the all-out elections for Hartlepool Borough Council, which will take place under new ward boundaries. The Council is currently in no overall control, with the Conservatives, Independent Union and Veterans and People’s Party in coalition, making it a relative free-for-all.
Current Mayor of the Tees Valley Combined Authority Ben Houchen, another surprise win for the Conservatives in 2017, looks to be holding steady against Labour challenger Jessie Joe Jacobs. However, with the gap between Houchen and his Labour challenger just 0.5% in the last election, this week’s announcement that the Liberal Democrats will not be fielding a mayoral candidate may cause some unease. With the Lib Dems attracting a vote share of 12.3% in 2017, their voter base may become the unlikely kingmakers in this contest.
This year will also see the inaugural West Yorkshire mayoral election taking place, following the West Yorkshire devolution deal last year. Whilst in the past this would have been a sure bet for Labour, the 2019 general election where the party lost 4 historic seats in the county to the Tories has dampened confidence.
Labour’s Tracy Brabin MP (Batley and Spen) is still the bookies favourite to win, promising green innovation, improvements to the region’s ‘crumbling’ transport network and a new housing strategy. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are hoping that their newly selected candidate’s position as a Leeds city councillor will work to his advantage. Whilst slow to start after a delayed selection, Councillor Matthew Robinson is hoping to make up for lost time, promising to ‘bang the drum for business’ and regenerate the region’s high streets, towns and cities if elected.
Another brick in the wall?
If there is one thing that is certain, it is that this election will be decided by the pandemic. Whilst at first glance a national issue, it is worth remembering that the effect of the pandemic has been felt locally. The prized North West has seen the highest COVID-19 death rate in the UK, but also the toughest restrictions. Since March 2020, Manchester and many other places in the region have only been free from restrictions for 25 days, after being unceremoniously shunted into the highest tier on 30 July. After the much-lauded demolition of the red wall to unlock prosperity and level-up ‘left behind’ communities, the Conservatives are unlikely to be thanked at the ballot box for replacing it with another.
However, with Robert Jenrick looking to ‘defrost’ the devolution agenda after the elections, support in these traditionally Labour areas will be crucial. The Tories see their levelling up agenda as hand in hand with increased English devolution, and the voices of thirteen directly elected metro mayors will certainly be hard to ignore. It is not clear whether the promise of ‘levelling up’ or more unitary authorities will be enough and should Labour regain their influence in these elections, we can expect the devolution debate to heat up.
With Scottish independence high on the agenda and a Welsh referendum back in vogue, English voters will certainly be beginning to look at their own regional identities. With Brexit out of the way, calls for more power which turned many voters towards the Conservatives in 2019 may now be shifting against Westminster and towards a more radical English devolution. Supporters of both Scottish and Welsh independence will be looking for this newfound regionalism in England and backlash against Westminster on 6 May to pave the way for their own exit out of the Union.