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Deadline day


By Douglas Johnson

I hope you like voting if you live in Hartlepool. On 6 May, you will be asked to vote in no less than 4 elections – for a new MP, councillor, Combined Authority mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner. You’ll even be doing it on a new set of local authority boundaries.

The situation is typical in many parts of the country, where the catch up from last year’s delayed elections means we are facing a bumper year – these will be the biggest local elections since 1973. Virtually every voter in mainland Britain will be able to take part in at least one election.

Nominations for the elections close today. With so many seats up for grabs, it’s worth taking stock of exactly what is at stake next month – if you’re not too busy running to file your nomination papers, of course.

A litmus test

With so many people voting, these elections are the closest each of the national parties will have to a real test of voter attitudes before the next General Election. They will feature heavily in each party’s planning for the next two years.

For the Conservatives, the elections will be the first major test of whether they can cement the gains made nationally in 2019 – especially in the former ‘Red Wall’. They are also likely to be interpreted as a referendum on the Government’s handling of COVID 19 over the last year. The Hartlepool by-election, West Midlands Combined Authority and elections to local authorities like Derby that recently fell under Conservative control are the ones to watch here.

The test is arguably sterner for Labour’s Keir Starmer. At best, a poor showing in the elections will show just how much work there is still to do in rebuilding Labour’s position nationally. At worst, it will make his task of unifying the party even harder by providing ammunition to his critics.

Talk about a devolution

In terms of actual power, the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd in Wales arguably have most at stake. The test in Scotland will be whether Nicola Sturgeon can keep hold of her majority and whether Anas Sarwar can recover second place for Labour. As well as having implications for the independence debate, the results in Wales will be interpreted as another sign of how much Labour is making good the losses of 2019.

At a regional level, the elections of the London and combined authority mayors means 6 May will be a big night for cities. London and Manchester have offered their Labour mayors high-profile platforms at a time when the party has suffered nationally, while Conservatives such as Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen can point to their ability to attract Government investment. It will be interesting to see whether the Government’s beasting of London over TfL financing will motivate voters elsewhere to back the Conservatives – it doesn’t seem to be working in London.

Go local

There are a vast number of elections happening at a local level in May, including 13 directly elected Mayors, 39 police and crime commissioners and 135 local authorities. Of course, many of these will return little change – it is difficult to see Conservative control slipping in West Oxfordshire. However, there are some interesting results to watch locally.

At the last county council elections, the Conservatives were cruising to the landslide victory that never happened at the 2017 General Election and made major gains on the night. The map currently looks very blue – but it will be worth seeing whether Labour can claw back losses made on a bad night in 2017 in places like Kent and Northumberland and the Liberal Democrats can cement gains made in in 2019 in Cambridgeshire.

The local elections will also be the first since the UK fully exited the EU. The collapse of the UKIP vote had a major impact on elections in 2018 and 2019 in places like Lincolnshire. The way the party’s vote moves, particularly in places like Basildon where it won 27% of votes in 2016, has the potential to affect control of a number of councils. The degree to which COVID 19 has affected independents’ ability to make the personal connections that help them retain power will be interesting here. This was a major factor in UKIP’s staying power in Essex in 2017.  

There are some elections that will be interpreted as a sign of things to come nationally. The Conservatives need to take one seat in Basingstoke and Deane to win back full control of the council, for example, but this is a place where Labour ought to be making gains. In Durham, meanwhile, where the Conservatives won 3 of 5 parliamentary seats in 2019, Labour losses would suggest a longer-term realignment in the region.

But we should always be careful about reading too much into elections where local issues play a major role in determining voter priorities. It would be tempting to see further Liberal Democrat success in Sunderland as another brick crumbling in the Red Wall – but serious questions over competence at the Council will play a major part. The potential for a ‘vaccine bounce’ may also obscure longer-term trends at this election.

Perversely, the elections to the three entirely new local authorities being created at the election, Buckinghamshire, West Northants and North Northants, may be some of the least exciting of the night. These have all recently been safe areas for the Conservatives and are likely to remain in their hands.

And finally - don’t want to vote for a person?

In Tower Hamlets, you have your chance. The elections for the London Mayor and the GLA will be accompanied by a referendum on the mayoral system – in which every other party has been united by the prospect of former Mayor Lutfur Rahman returning now that his five year ban on standing for election has expired.