Welcome to our 2023 Local Election coverage
It feels like it comes around earlier every year, but the 2023 election period is upon us. Over the next six weeks, SEC Newgate will keep you up to date on the key campaign moments, the flashpoint locations and the key themes determining the results and their effect on your business decisions.
We’ll give you the in-depth lowdown on Brighton & Hove, Greater Manchester, the South West, Essex, as well as analysis on how local plan and council bankruptcy controversies are effecting the vote, and whether Lib Dems and Independents can again produce a strong showing.
This time round it’s the big one: 230 councils are up for election, a mixture of urban and rural, district, metropolitan district and unitary, some in thirds and others all-outs. The areas are diffuse but the key point to remember is that while the election areas last year were broadly good ground for Labour (effect: ready-made excuse for Conservatives, not too many gains possible for Labour), the 2019/2023 cycle is overall better ground for the Conservatives.
Even with a very poor performance last time out (they lost 1,330) 2019 produced 3,564 Conservative councillors versus Labour’s 2,021. But historically, the party has been dominant in this cycle: comfortably over 5,000 councillors in both 2015 and 2011. This is therefore not only the first electoral test for Rishi Sunak but an election which the Conservatives will be desperate to avoid catastrophe as they’ll need to win these areas to have any chance of avoiding a Labour landslide at the next general election.
Earlier this week, councillor officers will have been issuing the Notice of Election which officially kicks off the election campaigns. Councils themselves will be winding down for the Election Period (Purdah) in which they’ll avoid making controversial decisions. For example, planning committees with significant decisions to make won’t be seen until after the elections, at which point a new crop of councillors may be on.
By next Tuesday, prospective candidates will have to have their nomination papers in, and by 5pm next Wednesday we will know the names of all the candidates. This is the first election undertaken with the new ID requirements in place. This week Phil Briscoe looks at what effect this could have and how we could measure it.
As well as the direct impact on local plans and planning decisions, local elections are of course partly about predicting the result of the next general election. At SEC Newgate we have consultants from across the political spectrum: Tory optimists like David Hopps and Labour pessimists like Vincent Carroll-Battaglino may agree that the national polls will narrow before the election, but as ever it is where, why, and too whom seats are won and lost that matters.
So what do the main parties expect/hope for?
While the Conservatives are fighting on home turf here, they will be braced for another round of heavy losses across the country. With the Party around 20 points behind in the national polls, some losses will be unavoidable.
The Conservatives lost control of 44 councils and more than 1,300 council seats in 2019 in what was their worst local election performance since 1995 (and we all know what happened in 1997). So while it’s a case of damage limitation, isolated gains must be seen in the context of coming from a very low base.
While the aim must be to shore up the heartlands, who benefits from Tory losses matters. One suspects that Conservatives are more comfortable losing out to Lib Dems or Independents than to Labour, as they may be more likely to drift back to the “natural party of government” as a Labour national victory becomes a possibility. Lib Dems are after all the natural repository of protest votes. The mid-term blues may be long and deep here, but as long as Labour is not dominating in Conservative heartlands, they’ll think a 1997 result can be averted. It all depends how sticky these, and anti-local plan votes for Independents in places like Essex, are.
A year, like a week, is a long time in politics. It was that long ago that Conservatives were talking up their chances of a majority in Sunderland, of all places. But after Labour “stopped the rot” last year, a recent Con-to-Lab councillor defection has put this beyond reach. Time will tell whether Sunderland serves as a harbinger of the short Conservative experience in the Red Wall.
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. In February, Labour revealed the May election would be a “road test” for the Key Missions unveiled by Keir Starmer recently, as well as the “Build a Better Britain” slogan. The experience will be used to sharpen the message for the general election.
Polling analysis suggests that Labour will target the following districts for overall majority: Amber Valley (Labour-led 2019-21; twelve seats needed), Blackpool (Labour-led but without an overall majority), Brighton and Hove (Green minority-led, Labour needs eight gains compared to 2019), Cheshire West and Chester (Labour minority, three needed for a majority), Derby, Dover (five gains needed), Erewash (five gains needed), High Peak (one gain needed), Mansfield (four gains needed), Medway (seven gains needed), North Warwickshire (four gains needed), Plymouth (four gains needed), South Ribble (four gains needed), Stoke-on-Trent (ten seats needed), and looking to strengthen majority positions in places like Crawley, Gravesham and Southampton. It will also surely want to run Sheffield City Council alone rather than in a rainbow coalition as present. A recent poll suggested Labour and Greens will squeeze out the Lib Dems here.
Down south, Brighton & Hove would be considered a totemic win for Labour. The city has not delivered an overall majority for over 20 years but a recent byelection victory means Labour is more confident than ever of breaking that spell. It would also represent another internal victory for Keir Starmer, vindicating the national party’s decision to take control of selections to limit the influence of Corbynist elements that took control there around 2018. SEC Newgate will be watching this one and the others very closely.
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’- perhaps literally in the case of party leader Sir Ed Davey, who today launched the party’s campaign with a photo stunt involving him demolishing a row of blue hay bales with a yellow tractor in Buckinghamshire.
Traditionally the Lib Dems have succeeded at local elections by positioning itself 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 while criticising Labour-run councils of complacency and letting down voters with poor council services.
This year however, the Lib Dems are taking more of an unconventional approach with this election by fixating more on addressing the big issues like health and cost of living rather than “pavement politics”.
Although polling behind Labour and mocked by Conservatives, the Lib Dems are confident they can increase their national vote share and win big, given their success rate from previous elections. Last year the party won 16 councils which was eight more than in 2018, while winning 16% of seats up for election, a four-point lead from 2018. Not to mention that their national vote share also rose to 19%, around double what was forecasted by polls taken before the election. They’ve also had success in byelections against Conservatives.
For the Lib Dems this election is mainly about maintaining the “southern blues” for the Conservatives (target councils include Winchester, Guildford, Lewes and Eastbourne), and winning the majority of head-to-heads in the south-west, though they’ll also be looking to strengthen their position in Stockport, which they’ve run as a minority administration since 2022 and had controlled as a majority from 2002-14.