Cost of living is main
concern for voters
in local elections
Polling suggests Tories to face heavy losses
Polling suggests Tories to face heavy losses
Of all the predictions surrounding this year’s local elections, one can be made with absolute certainty. The most-used phrase among council candidates is “on the doorstep”.
It is here that old-hand councillors and new hopefuls alike stand wearing party rosettes and bearing leaflets as they ask prospective voters about the issues concerning them most.
For Mohammed Iqbal, Labour group leader on Pendle Borough Council, which was won by the Conservatives at last year’s local elections, the answer is simple.
“On the doorstep the biggest talking point is the cost of living crisis,” he says. “People are now genuinely struggling.
“I’m not talking only about working class, low income residents of socially deprived areas. This is happening in middle class and normally Conservative-voting wards, where we are door-knocking and people are telling us they won’t vote for the Tories.
“Of course Partygate crops up and there’s also local issues like dirty streets since the Conservatives here have slashed the street cleaning budget.”
How many voters will – as is widely predicted – turn their backs on the Conservatives is the big question of this election. Or as one candidate put it, might the Tories be given just a Will Smith-style Oscars night slap in the face or receive an outright kick in the teeth?
The latter outcome was suggested last week by a joint survey by the Electoral Calculus and Find Out Now polling organisations, which found the Conservatives could lose 810 of the 1,800 seats they are defending in England and Wales. The same poll found that Labour could gain around 800 seats.
Elections to London’s 32 boroughs account for the majority of seats contested in this year’s elections. Of these, seven are held by the Tories, three by the Liberal Democrats, one is under no overall control and the rest are held by Labour, which is predicted to retain its hold on the capital.
Most key battlegrounds are outside London, however, with results liable to be interpreted as a verdict on the Conservatives’ record since the party’s landslide general election victory in 2019.
In England there are 2,500 seats on 114 councils up for election. Despite the predictions it will be an anxious time for Labour, which is defending 62 councils compared with the Conservatives’ 46 and Liberal Democrats’ 12. A total of 26 local authorities are currently under no overall control by any party.
Most contests seen as weathervanes of party fortunes are in the North. In Rossendale, Lancashire, Labour has control despite being one seat short of a majority, With six seats occupied by Conservative councillors up for election there are hopes the balance will swing back to Labour.
Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council is run by a minority Conservative group, with Labour three seats behind. However, the large number of seats occupied by independents and smaller parties – 15 in total – makes it harder for any one party to command a majority.
In Pendle, Iqbal’s Labour group ran the council until last May when it lost control to the Conservatives, who now have an overall majority of three.
Another fascinating Lancashire contest is for control of Hyndburn Borough Council, where five Labour councillors have quit the party in the past month, including council leader Miles Parkinson, who now sits as an independent. They have complained of a “toxic” atmosphere in the local Labour Party and there have been allegations of bullying and intimidation. The defectors, although no longer Labour members, hold the balance of power and have kept the council under Labour control.
The most high-profile contest in the borough this time is in Huncoat ward, where Labour’s Samina Mahmood hopes to become the first Asian woman to win a seat on Hyndburn council.
A supply teacher and mother of two of Pakistani Muslim heritage, she says: “Standing for election is a bit of a taboo because a lot of men in our culture don’t really like women representing [them]. However, I’m divorced now so I can give it my time.”
There has been some local criticism, she admits, but not to her face. “There’s a bit of gossip about me, but it’s all right. It’s the way the culture is, really. I’m trying to change their mindset. Huncoat ward is mostly an English community, and I’ve had a really good response when meeting people on the doorstep. No one has said anything negative.”
Other North West councils to watch are Wirral, Burnley, Rossendale, and West Lancashire, where Labour lost their majorities in the recent past and just a handful of gains could swing control one way or the other.
Across the Pennines, particularly close attention will be paid to the elections in Wakefield following the resignation of the city’s MP Imran Khan after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. A by-election is now pending in the so-called Red Wall seat, which Labour held from the 1930s until Khan’s victory in 2019. The local election results may offer a preview of voter intentions.
Labour has an overall majority of 24 there, and with 21 seats being contested next month the party is in no danger of losing control of the council. All eyes are on what happens to the Conservative vote and its current councillor tally of 15.
Elsewhere, Labour controls Bradford Council with an outright majority of six, but defending 18 seats this time means there will be frayed nerves at the count.
In Kirklees, which includes former mill towns centred on Huddersfield, the council is run by a minority Labour group in need of three more seats to win outright control.
Sheffield was run by the Labour group continuously from 2011 until last year’s elections, when the Lib Dems and Greens took seats off them to put the city council under no overall control. Since then Labour and Greens have negotiated a co-operation agreement to run the council. With 28 seats up for grabs there is likely to be a strong fight for outright control.
Charlotte Maddix of the Local Government Information Unit predicts in her Ones to Watch guide to this year’s elections: “It will be a tricky one for the Conservatives in England.”
But, she cautions, back in 2018 some analysts wondered whether the Conservatives – then beleaguered by problems like the Brexit stalemate, cabinet resignations, economic woes and Windrush – would suffer bleak consequences in that year’s local elections. “Instead,” she says, “despite a few shake-ups, 2018 was a victory for the status quo.”
The only contest for an elected metro mayor in the North is taking place in South Yorkshire, where voters in Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield will decide who runs transport, adult education, economic development, regeneration and a range of net zero policies to tackle climate change. The winner will command a budget of £1.3bn over the next four years.
The Labour MP for Barnsley Central, Dan Jarvis, was elected the first mayor back in 2018 – with 74 per cent of second-round votes – for what was then called the Sheffield City Region, Barnsley and Doncaster not having initially signed up to the idea. This time Jarvis has decided not to stand for re-election, and the mayoralty area now covers all of South Yorkshire.
Labour’s candidate, and favourite to win, is Oliver Coppard, who was described in the Daily Mail as “Twit of the week” for declaring he could win the Sheffield Hallam seat at Westminster from then Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg at the 2015 general election. In the event, Coppard slashed Clegg’s majority from 15,000 to just over 2,000 and set the scene for Labour winning the seat in 2017.
Coppard, who is Jewish, chose not to stand as a candidate under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn because of concerns about antisemitism in the party. In recent years he has worked for the national BookTrust charity and is chair of Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union.
He launched his mayoral campaign by accusing the Conservatives of making promises to the North that have never been delivered. He lists his priorities as fixing South Yorkshire’s bus services, which local councils have said are “in crisis”, developing a clean energy strategy for the region and attracting more investment and jobs. He has stated that if elected he will oversee the planting of 1.4 million trees to help absorb greenhouse gases.
Improving local transport is also to the fore of campaigns by Coppard’s opponents. The Conservatives were main challengers in 2018 and this time the party’s candidate is Clive Watkinson, who runs a Barnsley-based furniture retailer. Third place in 2018 was taken by the Liberal Democrats, now represented by Sheffield councillor Joe Otten, who unsuccessfully contested the elections for South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016 and 2021.
The Green Party, which currently has 13 seats on Sheffield City Council, hopes to perform strongly with its candidate Bex Whyman. She describes herself as a full-time senior analyst and mother and also lists transport as a priority.
The Yorkshire Party’s chances rest with the colourful Simon Biltcliffe, a Barnsley web-marketing entrepreneur who describes his business approach as “like John Lewis on speed” and uses the name Marx4capitalism on Twitter.
For those who thought the Social Democratic Party, SDP, formed by the Labour breakaway Gang of Four in 1981, had been eaten up by the Lib Dems, David Bettney, a businessman working in oil and gas fields, is a reminder that the party is not over. Bettney wants to focus on boosting skills training and apprenticeships.
Photo: Pendle Labour leader Mohammed Iqbal, in the Brierfield ward, hopes to wrest back control of the council. (Roger Ratcliffe)