Sir John CurticeProfessor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research, and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’
May’s local elections are widely regarded as a vital test for Rishi Sunak, who has so far had little success in improving his party’s electoral prospects. However, the test may not prove as challenging for the Prime Minister as the polls suggest. The Conservatives did poorly when most of the seats up for election this year were last contested, while the Liberal Democrats will be defending a high-water mark.
The local elections scheduled to take place in much of England outside London at the beginning of May will represent Rishi Sunak’s first significant electoral test as Prime Minister. Tory MPs will be looking for evidence that a man who proved unable to persuade party members to back him in last summer’s leadership contest will prove more popular with voters in general. Some already have doubts that Sunak can ever fill the shoes vacated by Boris Johnson.
The polls are hardly propitious for the Prime Minister. As of the middle of March, these are currently crediting the Conservatives with just 27% of the vote, while Labour are on 46%. Conservative support has largely flatlined since Mr Sunak inherited the disastrous poll position bequeathed by Liz Truss. It would seem the party is heading for a crushing defeat.
Local Elections Baseline
However, the prospects for the party are not quite as bleak as those headline poll figures suggest. In all but 23 of the 231 metropolitan, unitary and district councils where elections are scheduled to take place this year, all of the seats up for grabs – of which there will be just over 8,000 in total – were last contested four years ago. And the Conservatives were in deep trouble then too. Theresa May was trying and eventually failing to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons. Boris Johnson was still waiting for his chance to pick up the Prime Ministerial ball when it emerged from the political scrum. The Conservatives were at just 26% in the polls, little different from the position now.
The party’s unpopularity was reflected in the local ballot boxes. It suffered a net loss of 46 councils and over 1,300 seats. However, that misfortune four years ago, is Mr Sunak’s good fortune now. It means he will be defending a relatively poor set of previous local election results.
Yet that does not necessarily mean that the party will not suffer some significant losses. Four years ago, Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn and just as divided over Brexit, were also in a weak position in the polls. The party’s average rating was just 32%, well below where it is now. Its performance in the local ballot boxes was even worse than that – the BBC estimated that the Conservative and Labour performances both equated to winning just 28% each in a national poll. Labour suffered a net loss of five councils and 86 seats.
So, although the Conservatives are in as much trouble now as they were four years ago, their principal rivals, Labour, are not. Consequently, the polls point to as much as an seven-point swing from Conservative to Labour compared with four years ago.
Councils To Watch
If such a swing were to be reflected in the local ballot boxes, it would likely result in the Conservatives losing control of a substantial tally of councils – but not as many as in 2019. The party could well lose control of at least a dozen local authorities and maybe as many 20, in most instances to no overall control. Among the councils where the party’s grip is potentially at risk are Dover, where the issue of migrant boats is particularly salient, and Walsall, whose capture in 2019 was the party’s one bright star on a dismal night.
Meanwhile, Labour would make a notable if modest tally of council gains – most likely around ten to a dozen. Among the possibilities are ‘Red Wall’ Stoke-on-Trent (where Independents provide much of the opposition), and both Darlington and Erewash, both of contain key marginal seats. However, many of the elections this year are for seats on rural district shire councils where Labour is often not competitive. This will limit the party’s scope for making headline grabbing gains.
Liberal Democrat Prospects
Indeed, on many a small shire district it is the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, who are the principal challengers locally to the Conservatives. This might prove a blessing for Rishi Sunak too. Despite a modest national poll rating at the time, in 2019 the Liberal Democrats recorded what at that point was the party’s best local election performance since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 election. It made a net gain of a dozen councils and of 704 seats. The performance laid the foundations for the party’s success in outpolling both the Conservatives and Labour in European Parliament elections just three weeks later.
However, this means the party will be defending a relatively high baseline, one that it largely emulated in last year’s local elections, but no more than that. Given that, at 9%, the Liberal Democrats’ position in the national polls is no better now than it was a year ago, perhaps the best the party can hope for is to succeed in defending much of what it currently holds. Such an outcome would also help stem Conservative losses – though the Liberal Democrats will hope that signs of anti-Conservative tactical voting in last year’s local elections are repeated and thereby help them take at least some Conservative scalps.
A Silver Lining?
One other feature of what happened in 2019 might also prove helpful to Sunak. At the time nearly one in five voters were backing the then recently launched Brexit Party or UKIP in the polls, nearly all of them voters unhappy with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit. However, with relatively few Eurosceptic candidates appearing on the ballot paper, some Leave supporters appear to have vented their discontent by backing independent or local party candidates, who between them gained 667 seats, almost as many as the Liberal Democrats. With little in the way hitherto of a Reform UK presence on local ballot papers, perhaps some of these Leave voters will return to the Tory fold this time? Sunak will certainly be hoping so.