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Local elections 2023: A test for both Sunak and Starmer

Polling Station UK
04 May 2023
Public Affairs
local elections

Today, millions of voters across England will be headed to the polls in what will be seen as a significant progress-maker for both major political parties. For Rishi Sunak, this will be his first electoral test since becoming Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader six months ago. While for Sir Keir Starmer, he will be hoping that Labour’s sustained lead in the polls can be replicated at the ballot box – showing they are on the path to government. 

In this year’s local elections, around 8,000 councillors are being elected in 230 councils, along with four mayoral elections being held in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesborough.  

Today’s elections will also be the first time that voters in England will be required to present ID before they can cast their vote. According to a poll from The Independent, more than one in five still wrongly believe they can vote without showing photo ID at this year’s election. With seemingly limited knowledge among voters about the new laws, there are some concerns that voters will be turned away.  

While the election areas last year were broadly good ground for Labour, this election cycle is overall better ground for the Conservatives. Despite this, the last time these seats were contested, the Conservative Party had its worst local election performance since 1995. The Conservatives lost 1,300 seats and 44 councils, while Labour lost 84 councillors and six councils. 

Four years and three Prime Ministers later, what can we expect heading into this years’ local elections? 


In an attempt to manage expectations, yesterday evening, Rishi Sunak warned of a “hard night” for the Conservatives, admitting that some Conservative councillors would lose their seats as a result of events “over the past year”. The tone used by the Prime Minister seems to co-sign predictions from other senior Conservatives who have continually stated that they are expected to lose 1,000 seats.  

Despite the party line, polling at Conservative HQ suggests that they will lose around 500 council seats tonight. With this in mind, to gauge Conservative success you should look at the 500-seat rule - if they lose less than 500, they have had a fairly good night, if they lose 500-1000 they have fared worse than expected but not unexpectedly for this stage of the electoral cycle, if their losses top 1,000, then that will go down as a somewhat disastrous night. 


Back in February, Labour revealed that these local elections would be a “road test” of its messaging ahead of next year’s expected general election. Given this, and Labour’s concrete lead in the polls, observers will be preparing to see if Labour is on track to return to government after 13 years. 

After an underwhelming 2022 result (losing three London councils even as it gained three others and failing to capitalise on Conservative losses) Labour will want to show that it can win head-to-head with the Conservatives in the Red Wall and the Midlands – essentially its target seats for the next election. 

Similarly to Sunak, Keir Starmer has also sought to manage expectations. In an interview with the Observer last weekend, he stated that if his party gains 400 seats it would “present good progress”. However, for a party seeking to win the next general election, Starmer will arguably need a stronger performance to convince sceptics that he is on track to deliver a Labour victory. 

According to polling expert Sir John Curtice, Labour would need a double-digit lead over the Conservatives in the local elections if Keir Starmer is to show he is heading for Downing Street. Writing for the Times, he declared that Labour’s aim of beating former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s seven-point lead over the Conservative’s in 2012 “would not be enough to emulate the performances of Sir Tony Blair before the 1997 general election or of David Cameron before his success in 2010”. 

In terms of seats, pollsters Ralling and Thraster predicted that more than 700 gains would see the party achieve its best results for more than a decade. 450 gains would only represent a small improvement on 2022 local elections, while less than 150 gains would see the party go backwards. 

Liberal Democrats 

Traditionally, the Liberal Democrats have succeeded in local elections by positioning themselves as a champion of local communities - a narrative reflected this year with the party criticising the Conservatives in failing to guarantee tax cuts to small businesses, and criticising Labour-run councils of complacency and letting down voters with poor council services. 

The 2019 local elections represented the first really good electoral performance for the Lib Dems since the formation of the 2010-15 coalition. They doubled their councillors in the cohort, largely at the expense of the Conservatives. As with Labour, the Liberal Democrats now sense the opportunity to make head waves by smashing the Conservative's 'blue wall'. 

Senior Lib Dems remain optimistic about gaining around 250 seats, with most expected to come from the "true blue heartlands" of West Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Stratford-on-Avon, Cherwell, and Dacorum. The party also hopes to put pressure on the Conservatives in Bath & North East Somerset and Labour in Hull, attempting to revert those authorities to no overall control, with the Lib Dems becoming key dealmakers.   

As we wait for the polls to close, and votes to be counted, today’s election will certainly set the political tone for the next few weeks. A positive night for Labour could see them far more optimistic about their chances of returning to government, whilst a good night for the Conservatives could see them believing that a fifth term in office is not off the cards just yet. 


Stay tuned on SEC Newgate's Local Elections Twitter feed this evening as results start to roll in.