Rishi Sunak has just experienced his first real test at the polls with the UK local council elections. From a Conservative Party standpoint it’s fair to say it wasn’t an overwhelming success. These elections are important not only as they have a direct impact on local politics, but also because typically they are a strong indicator of how parties will perform in a general election.
So, what did we learn?
Have Labour done enough?
There’s no denying that the results were a boon for Keir Starmer and his party. They became the largest party in local government – the first time they’ve done that since 2002 – winning more than 450 seats and 19 councils. Adding to that, the Tories had a blowout, losing over 1000 seats and 47 councils.
However, if you analyse these elections as if they were a national opinion poll, Labour would fall 36 seats short of a majority, despite being the largest party in Westminster with a projected 298 seats.
For context, the election saw Starmer’s party about nine to ten points ahead in the overall vote share but in 1996, prior to their historic general election landslide, Blair’s party recorded a fourteen-point advantage in the locals.
Whilst these results indicate a clear improvement on Labour’s current Westminster position, Starmer will be conscious that his current risk-averse strategy may not be enough to get them over line for that desperately sought after majority.
‘Return of the coalition of chaos’ attack line
We are well and truly on an election footing now, with both parties testing the waters with their attack lines. It’s interesting, therefore, to see a return for the old Tory favourite phrase: the ‘coalition of chaos’.
This is a term that has been banded around UK political discourse many a time in recent years. Most recently used to describe the prospect of a Labour-SNP partnership at the last election. It has reared its head once again now though, as Tories claim that Labour’s win was not emphatic enough to suggest they’d win a majority and would therefore be subjecting the nation to a cobbled coalition.
It will be interesting to see if this strategy moves the needle for them this time though, as the current Liberal Democrat and Labour parties are almost ideologically indistinguishable and therefore the threat of ‘chaos’ coming from that is harder to imagine.
A nod to the Liberal Democrats
Speaking of the Lib Dems, it is also worth pointing out that this was a fantastic election for them. Last time out in 2019, they had one of their best ever performances in the local elections, so it was a difficult base to defend. Ed Davey will be delighted, then, that his share of the vote went up a point on 2019, taking it to the highest level since 2010.
If projections are to be believed and we’re heading for a hung parliament, the Lib Dems could have a crucial role to play in the next election. Davey’s outwardly anti-Tory stance may impact their ability to win concessions in any hung parliament though, as realistically Labour are their only ticket into government so Starmer can afford to be bullish in negotiations, knowing Davey is unlikely to get in to bed with Sunak.
For the first time voters in England who headed to the polls needed to bring with them photographic ID. Accepted forms of ID included passports, driving licences, 60+ Oyster cards (but not the 18+ student versions) and some bus passes.
There were concerns that this was going to lead to people being unable to cast their vote, and that it would create more issues than solutions given there was just one conviction of impersonation at the last election. Whilst we don’t know how many people were denied at the polling stations, the Electoral Commission did release a statement saying:
“…the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and … some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result”.
It’s clear that many voters weren’t aware of this change, and if the policy is to be retained, the government has a big communications job on their hand to ensure everyone who wishes to vote is able to do so.
Overall then, the election went as many had predicted. Despite forecasting a bad day at the ballot box to manage expectations, the Tories still managed to come away looking a little bruised. Labour will be happy with their results but know that there’s still work to do if Sir Keir wants to be in 10 Downing Street come 2025. And it was a good day for parties outside the big two, with the Lib Dems and Greens picking up a host of seats.
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