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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Labour Aims For Local Elections Win While Tories Pin Hopes On Sunak’s Personal Brand

Local elections will be held in England on May 4 (Alamy)

6 min read

The Labour Party needs to become the biggest party in local government at this year’s local elections to prove it is on track for victory at the next general election, a leading pollster has suggested, as Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak gear up for a huge electoral test next month.

The local votes on May 4 will see candidates vying for more than 8,000 seats across England, with ballots being held across hundreds of authorities and districts. Elsewhere, Northern Ireland will also elect all 462 seats in all 11 local authorities, but this has been pushed back for two weeks to 18 May due to the Coronation, as their single transferable vote system takes longer to count. 

Labour leader Starmer has not faced a vote in most of these areas so far, as they were last contested in 2019. Although they are not being held across the whole country, these local elections will give the clearest picture so far of whether the significant Labour lead in the polls is playing out at the ballot box. 

The Tories, who have been in central government for the last 13 years, are defending more than 3,000 of these seats. The figures are an ”indication of the Conservative Party’s relative success in local government, despite being in central government,”  Lord Robert Hayward, Conservative peer and leading elections analyst, told PoliticsHome.

“Because it is a truism that anybody who is in government – not just in this country but elsewhere – that you lose those local elections, but the Conservative Party hasn’t.” 

With national polls suggesting Labour are well in the lead for a General Election that must happen before January 2025, one pollster told PoliticsHome that Labour should be hoping to become the largest party locally this time around, if the figures are to show them on track for a victory at the next election. 

“I think the minimum Labour should really be… aiming [for is] to become the biggest party in local government,” Adam Drummond at Opinium said. 

Labour held 48 per cent of local seats across the country in 1997, compared to the Conservatives’ 20 per cent, according to House of Commons data analysed by Opinium.

 By 2003 the Conservatives had more local seats than Labour, and by 2009 Labour, by then under Gordon Brown, had dropped to 21 per cent, with the Tories on 46 per cent. 

The last time most of these seats were contested in 2019 left Labour with a 32 per cent share nationwide with the Conservatives on 38 per cent, with both dropping by one percentage point by 2022’s locals. 

“They gradually picked up the numbers, but they never actually got more councillors than the Tories, and if that doesn’t happen this year, I would say that’s probably bad for Labour,” Drummond explained. 

“That would strongly suggest that things are tightening – the kind of the tightening of people sort of inevitably expect to happen in voting intent, that would be a pretty strong indicator that is actually happening.” 

Labour figures are optimistic about the party’s chances in May, with campaigners suggesting that many voters are turning to the party after feeling let down by the government, who they say are out of ideas. However, PoliticsHome understands that the party are keen to not take any support for granted, and expect that results on the night will show a closer national vote share than current polls’ 20–point–plus leads. 

This website reported last month that shadow cabinet members have been “twinned” with areas the party are hoping to win at this year’s local elections, with hopes that visits from top names will help mobilise members on the doorstep. 

Labour believe that they have had a good reaction on the doorstep, both to leader Starmer and other shadow cabinet ministers on the road with him. Following a visit to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk earlier this week, the local paper reported Starmer was stopped for pictures during his visits, before having a chat about football in an ice cream shop.  In a Hartlepool pub earlier on the campaign, one local said that Starmer was “no doubt” going to be the next prime minister before also asking for a selfie, a campaign source told PoliticsHome

Other Whitehall watchers agree that the stakes are high for Labour, but also represent the first opportunity for voters to pass judgement on Prime Minister Sunak.

Peter Hourston from the Institute for Government think tank said “these elections are important as the first electoral test for Rishi Sunak since becoming Prime Minister and also for Keir Starmer as perhaps the final opportunity for Labour to demonstrate that it is capable of winning back lost ground across England before the general election campaign starts properly next year.”

Conservatives are confident that Sunak’s personal brand is strong among the electorate, despite the party’s ratings more generally falling behind. According to YouGov figures from earlier this week, while only 27 per cent of the electorate intend to vote Conservative, compared to 44 per cent for Labour, 26 per cent of people think that Sunak would make the best prime minister, a lot closer to Starmer on 31 per cent. 

They think that voters still have questions about Starmer and what he represents, and with the Conservatives now appearing more united around Sunak than they did around his  predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson in the last 18 months, the mood is more positive than it has been in recent months with less infighting and “tittle tattle”. The performance of the Liberal Democrats in traditionally Tory, middle–class areas in the south of England could also indicate the level of threat the Liberal Democrats will pose to the so–called ‘Blue Wall’ areas such as Surrey and the Home Counties at the General Election. 

A Lib Dem campaign source told PoliticsHome that they are “hoping for a good set of elections” with the “Conservative Party brand completely ruined” in some of those parts of the country. 

“People who say they used to vote Conservative all their life and saying this be the first time they don't vote Conservative, and I've heard that on the doorstep loud and clear,” they said. 

They said that perceptions of the Tories now include the party being marred by “sleaze” and “broken” and that people “ want change and they know that in our target areas, the only way they can get change is us because the Labour just don't exist in a lot of our rural communities, and a lot in place in the South.” 

With the recent stability, Conservatives hope that these ballots may be a more “normal” set of local elections compared to last time these seats were up, when both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party were big deciding factors in voting intentions. 

Nonetheless, campaigners have suggested they are not expecting these to be the party’s strongest set of results and predict Labour will do well, so are looking further down the track to the looming general election vote, as they continue to get their message out on to the doorstep.

The Labour Party did not respond to a request for comment. A Conservative Party spokesperson said: "The Prime Minister is focused on delivering for the British public.

"Our priorities are the people's priorities, and we are committed to halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping the boats.

"Only the Conservatives can be trusted to keep council tax low, provide quality services and secure a better future for your family."

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