The year of local elections is upon us, and only a brave soul would predict the overall outcome

Last week we observed that this is the biggest year of the local electoral cycle. No fewer than 248 councils in England have elections – although none in London, and in 151 the elections are all-out: every councillor is up for re-election. Which of them could change hands? Given the fraught political situation, almost any. But some are worth commenting on.

Most of the metropolitan boroughs have elections but there is not much interest in them this year: Labour controls almost all of them, and may achieve overall majorities in Trafford and Calderdale but none is really likely to change hands.

There are some new ingredients in the mix in the shape of five newly merged councils. The two new unitaries in Dorset have been heavily Conservative but the merger has been controversial and the current council leadership has been criticised (especially in the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council), so may be worth watching. The other three (Somerset West and Taunton, East Suffolk and West Suffolk) are likely to be Conservative.

Highlights among the unitary councils are:

  • Bedford: Dave Hodgson, the directly-elected Liberal Democrat mayor, is reliant on personal popularity to keep his position, and needs to finish in the top three to benefit from vote transfers. The council is highly unlikely to have an overall majority.
  • Brighton and Hove: Run by a minority Labour administration since 2015, the local party has had an influx of the left and moderate Labour councillors have been deselected. Former council leader Warren Morgan has left to support ‘Change UK’. If Labour keep control, the new council will shift significantly to the left – but the lesson from Haringey in 2018 was that Labour underperformed in similar circumstances.
  • Medway: If pro-Brexit voters are not willing to go to the polls to back the Conservatives, it potentially leaves the Conservatives vulnerable in a large authority that voted 64% to leave the EU and where Labour has a good activist base. Medway has been Conservative-run since 2000.
  • Peterborough: A council elected by thirds, where two Conservative losses would take it into no overall control. Local political campaigning has been intense because of the prospect of a Parliamentary byelection: the recall petition closes the day before polling day.
  • Portsmouth: The Conservatives lost control in 2018 and now appear to be in full retreat, but for the Liberal Democrat to get a majority is out of reach.
  • Southend-on-Sea: A disastrous night for the Conservatives would endanger their control. They would need four losses to cede overall control.
  • Swindon: Conservative-controlled since 2003, Swindon is now a top Labour target which the party has come close to winning and where they did unexpectedly well in 2018. Local factory closures have been highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn.
  • Thurrock: One of the strongest UKIP areas until the local group seceded en masse to form Thurrock Independents, the council has been trending towards the Conservatives recently. Can they make the two gains needed to get an overall majority, or did the chance slip by when Brexit didn’t happen?

In the district councils, there are several heavily leave voting areas which have been politically marginal and where control is uncertain. In Thanet the UK Independence Party actually won a majority in 2015, but the group fell apart partly because its signature policy of reopening Manston Airport proved unachievable. The Conservative minority administration may now regain majority control. Tendring (the district covering Harwich and Clacton) likewise saw a strong UKIP vote but a fracturing group, and the Conservatives attained a majority through defections.

One of Labour’s best chances for gaining control comes in Amber Valley, a marginal area where the Conservatives are defending all but one of the seats up. Only three gains would change the council. A good performance in Gravesham would put Labour back in control there. Worcester is an interesting fight as the Conservatives now have an overall majority but the council constitution requires an all-party administration; if they make more gains, will they change the constitution and take control?

Labour is under pressure in Crawley which normally has elections by thirds but is now all out on new ward boundaries. But there are far more councils with small Conservative majorities where local parties are fretting about their chances of retaining control, including three in Hertfordshire: Welwyn Hatfield, St Albans and North Hertfordshire.

Three Surrey councils are also difficult Conservative defences. Last year’s result in Tandridge makes it very likely the Conservatives will lose control; in Mole Valley a proper Liberal Democrat revival in a district which had a remain lead would easily depose the Conservatives. Elmbridge, although a knife-edge borough, may now be trending the Conservatives’ way.

The key location in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat battle is Winchester, where there is just one seat in it and the Conservative administration has been under heavy criticism. But in Colchester the Conservatives are within one seat of deposing a Liberal Democrat/Labour/Independent coalition that has kept them from power for many years.

There is also something to look for nationally. In the event of large Conservative seat losses and Labour gains (or some combination of the two), it is possible Labour will go ahead of the Conservatives in the Local Government Association’s calculation of ‘proportionality’ which evens up the proportion of councillors to take account of some wards being larger. The Conservatives have been on top since 2004 except for one year in 2014-15; they regained top spot due to gains in the corresponding elections four years ago. Labour are coming from a long way behind but don’t rule it out.

A few weeks after the locals, it will all start again, with the European elections on 23 May – and all local authorities have gone into purdah from last Monday because of this.  Apparently the Brexit Party is leading the polls on that…..

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