The local election test

This week's polls in 57 council districts in the north will gauge how support for political parties has shifted through the Brexit process

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Local government elections will take place across England and Northern Ireland on Thursday 2 May, including 57 council districts in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. Nearly all councils will hold elections in the regions, with the exception of Harrogate, Doncaster, Rotherham and Warrington.

“The 2019 contests will be a revealing test of where support for the parties has shifted since 2015,” said Stuart Wilks-Heeg, senior lecturer in politics at Liverpool University. “They will also give us some insights into what we might expect from the forthcoming European Parliament elections at the end of May.”

Depending on the council, either all the seats or just one third will be contested. All registered electors (British, Irish, Commonwealth and European Union citizens) who are 18 or over on 2 May will be eligible to vote.

Punishment at polls

The Brexit negotiations fiasco is likely to influence voting, despite it having little to do with local government. Nevertheless, a clear effect cannot be predicted – both Conservatives and Labour voters may be disillusioned with each party’s approach to Brexit and decide to punish them at the polls.

Tories will face greater difficulties, as they will be defending most of their councils in all-out contests, rather than ones where only a third of seats are up for grabs. Labour is aiming to capitalise on concerns about Tory budget cuts to local government and council indebtedness, and discontent over national policies, giving it a further rhetorical boost in northern regions where it is already strong.

The Tories, on the other hand, tend to advocate for freezing council tax and pledge to quit funding “vanity projects”, using the money instead for frontline local services.

Historically, local elections have had low turnouts when they have not been held alongside a general election. Little over a third of the electorate is expected to cast a vote this year, partly due to apathy towards local politics, as many see councils as powerless instruments of the central government. But although councils do not hold the same influence as Westminster, they do have the job of promoting the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their district and have an important role to play in the transition towards zero carbon emissions and other environmental initiatives.

Targeting weakness

The current winner-takes-all electoral system has also often been criticised, because it creates lots of safe seats in certain areas, discouraging people from going to the polls.

The elections feature eight no overall control (NOC) battlegrounds in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. Labour’s main targets will be Allerdale, Carlisle, Trafford and Calderdale, as their current share of seats is around 48 per cent in these councils and it would be a matter of gaining only a seat or two to reach a majority. Furthermore, Labour also only has slim leads in Bolton, Bury, Cheshire West and Chester, Lancaster, Hull and Wirral, where their share goes little over 50 per cent.

The Conservatives are not particularly strong in the north but do hold some councils securely. The party’s closest targets will be Cheshire West and Chester, North East Lincolnshire, Trafford and Ryedale. The main councils it is defending are Pendle and Scarborough. Both will likely remain Tory but could slip over into a NOC situation. The Lib Dems should be able to keep South Lakeland, while fighting to gain seats in Sheffield, Stockport and York.

Results in Allerdale, run by a Labour minority, should provide an interesting insight. Allegations of bullying within the local Labour Party have led to some councillors forming a breakaway group, following the steps of the Independent Group on a national level. The new independents are expecting to get five seats at the local, which would further plunge Allerdale into fragmented governance. The outcome of these elections could be of interest nationwide as it will give an understanding of support for defecting politicians.

Following the ward boundary review, Carlisle will see all its seats reconfigured. Wilks-Heegs said: “Carlisle will provide a useful barometer of the political mood in urban areas that were traditionally Labour but have seen a recent Conservative surge… A strong Labour performance in Carlisle in the local elections would reassure the party that it can realistically retake the parliamentary seat at the next general election.”

Head-to-head

Trafford had been the sole Conservative council of the 10 in Greater Manchester until last year, when it went to NOC. Only in Ashton upon Mersey is the distance between the Conservatives and Labour close enough to foresee a decisive swing towards Labour but gaining only one seat would not be enough to win the council.

Similarly in Calderdale, Labour is only two councillors short of a majority but, when considering previous results in individual wards, NOC remains the likelihood.

In Stockport, Lib Dems have a chance to steal votes from the Tories and maybe surpass Labour, but it is still unlikely that a majority could form. Labour and Lib Dems will likely go head to head once again, but the former have less room to make gains, as the wards that do flip-flop tend to do so between Tories and Lib Dems.

York will also be of interest for the Lib Dems as, like Stockport, it is going to be a tight race between the three main parties – with the added pressure of it being an all-out election. Here, Labour will probably successfully defend all its seats and make gains at the expense of all other parties.

If lucky, Labour could win over North East Lincolnshire, although once again the realistic prediction would be NOC, with Labour increasing its lead and setting itself up for seizing the council next year.

The areas with most independents holding seats are Conservative councils, while Greens’ main presence is found in Labour-led cities. Independents in areas such as Allerdale, Fylde and Cheshire East are pledging to put an end to the model of cabinet-like local governance and party politics, to make councils more inclusive and accountable. Independents tend to benefit from defections from the main parties, as councillors grow tired of tightly-knit executive teams that ignore their views.

Greens, whose strongest presence is in Lancaster, Liverpool, Sheffield and York, are focused on declaring a climate emergency and to move towards zero carbon emissions compliant with the Paris Agreement.

For most councils, the key question will be the extent national politics percolates into local elections, particularly the issue of Brexit. Looking at previous election data, it seems that Labour will be able to make gains at the expense of all parties across the regions, while Conservatives and Lib Dems will fight each other for voters. Even though the local government landscape across the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber will not change dramatically, results will be key to check the effects of a chaotic political situation on the standing of the major parties.

Source for data: opencouncildata.co.uk

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