Local elections 2023: what to expect?

This year’s local elections will see over 8,000 seats contested across English councils. An extremely tough first electoral test for the relatively new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, his Conservative Party will defend over 3,300 seats on Thursday amid a significant if not slightly improving position in the polls.

Ahead of the King’s Coronation the same weekend and Eurovision a few days later, the local elections are by no means the only story in town. However, they do have serious implications for both testing the temperature of the UK public and the composition of local Government across England.

What are the May Local Elections? And what can we expect?

Thursday will see voters head to the polls to elect representatives for district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan boroughs, and directly elected mayors. With no seats up for grabs in London, this year’s election virtually mirrors the seats up for contest in 2019 when Theresa May’s Conservative Party lost over 1,300 councillors.

Conservative Party

Cabinet Minister Greg Hands told Sky News only weeks ago that the Conservative Party could be on track to lose over 1,000 seats on Thursday. Whether this is an exercise in managing expectations and public perception ahead of the vote or a genuine prediction remains to be seen, however, what is clear is that the Tories are in for a tough ride.

In recent weeks, the Conservative Party has narrowed Labour’s lead in the polls but is still blighted by the political turmoil and scandal that bogged down their political activity and communications strategy throughout 2022. The cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation rates are likely to play a role in voting intention and CCHQ will watch with bated breath as the results come in.

Labour Party

Keir Starmer and the Labour Party look on course to form the next Government, if opinion polling is reflected at the ballot box come the next General Election. Despite Local Government not having oversight of the major policy areas usually seen as a priority for the public (Economic, Health, Transport, Immigration), a vote heavily in favour of Labour will boost the party’s self-confidence that it is indeed a government in waiting. More specifically, Starmer’s team will be keeping an eye on seats across the traditional “red wall” area that were firmly demolished by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the 2019 General Election.

Other Parties

Liberal Democrat candidates and HQ will be eager to make inroads into areas across Southern England where it has traditionally been successful. Any gains across England, the Lib Dems will see as a springboard to improving results at the next General Election.

The Green Party will be looking to exploit nationally salient environmental issues around climate change and water pollution and have recently been increasingly successful at Local Government level.

Voters frequently elect independent candidates to council positions, as they often come with less political ‘baggage’ and a perceived greater understanding of challenges to the local area and communities. The two major parties especially will keep a close eye on whether a surge in independent councillors does materialise and if they are being used as a protest vote to indicate increasing discontent with mainstream politics.

What are the most important issues to the public? And what do they expect to happen?

The purview of local councils and other local government bodies is distinctly different from the roles and responsibilities of the Westminster Government. Despite this, voters cite national issues and local issues as motivating factors behind who they vote for in local elections.

The latest Ipsos Political Pulse indicates that voters are motivated primarily by how well the council has previously been run (42%), the promises of candidates to the local area (41%) and the parties policies on national issues (33%).

However, within this it is clear that major national issues still dominate the public psyche, with the cost of living (52%) and the NHS (45%) remaining the motivating factors behind the public’s decision on Thursday, followed by more traditional local issues such as the condition of streets, roads and pavements (38%).

With the Conservative Party predicting themselves they will lose seats in this year’s local elections, this sentiment is reflected by the public. 55% of the public anticipate that the Conservative Party will lose more local councillors than they win, with only 13% of voters predicting this fate for the Labour Party.

Whether it be local or national issues, however, this year’s local elections will be watched closely leaders of both major political parties. As Sir Keir Starmer lies in waiting, Rishi Sunak faces a formidable challenge in his first electoral test with it anticipated that the party of Government could be in for a long day at the ballot box on Thursday.

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