Skip to main content

The Only Way is...

local elections
politics and planning

As we head into the final week of campaigning for the council elections, we take another look at the county of Essex – traditionally a Conservative heartland, pro-Brexit and a county that backed Boris in the 2019 General Election, when all 18 parliamentary constituencies returned a Conservative on 64.5% of all votes cast across the county. It is a county that the Conservatives need to keep doing well in. But where are they starting from? 

The last round of these local elections in 2019 was a bad night for the Conservatives, as they lost over 1,300 councillors around the country. Essex was not spared as the Conservatives lost 101 councillors and saw their support collapse in places such as Chelmsford and Uttlesford. However, they remained the largest party in local government, winning 154 of the 355 seats up for grabs in 2019. Both the Independents and the Liberal Democrats made up ground, largely by delivering significant results in some locations such as Chelmsford City, where the Lib Dems gained 31 seats on a single night.  

There are elections in all 14 Essex local authorities, of which five are all out elections and nine are electing roughly one-third of their councillors. The Conservatives currently have overall control of six local authorities in Essex, two councils are controlled by some form of Independents, one is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and five are currently in some form of No Overall Control. 

Where would change be possible? The five authorities with all-out elections are Braintree, Chelmsford, Maldon, Tendring and Uttlesford, so essentially any outcome is possible. However, of these the Conservatives only currently control Braintree so their potential for losses of authority among this list is limited to one. 

Of the other authorities, there are sufficient numbers of seats up for defence this time that could see the Conservatives lose all of the other authorities they are defending, but in all but two cases the loss of control would result in a shift to NOC. The only exceptions are Brentwood, where the Lib Dems could take control of the council and Harlow, where Labour could do the same. 

In all likelihood, the Conservatives will slip back from their 2019 position, and we will continue to see Lib Dems, Greens and Independents picking up seats across the county. However, the recent rise of Independents in Castle Point, Tendring and Uttlesford has not delivered the promised revolution to stop local plans and housing, so we may also see some of their support start to drain away in the areas where they have tasted power. 

The Conservatives have challenges in places such as Thurrock, where the council debt levels are well-reported and political capital may be extracted on polling day. Likewise, next door, in Brentwood, there are a number of sitting councillors choosing to stand down including the current council leader – are they expecting a change in support? 

Perhaps the most interesting number to look at is the Labour performance in Essex – in 2019, they won just 35 council seats, a net gain of just nine councillors on the day. In authorities like Harlow, Southend, Basildon, Colchester and Thurrock, will we see voters prepared to switch from blue to red or will those anti-government votes coalesce around some of the options that sit in the middle?  Recall that in the 1997 Labour landslide 6 Labour MPs were elected in Essex, alongside a Liberal Democrat in Colchester. If Labour fail to make inroads in the council election results this year, there may be more questions about their ability to capitalise at the general election next year.