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Thu, 25 July 2024

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By Tobias Ellwood
By Ben Guerin
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Smaller Parties' Locals Success Hints At Challenges To Come For Labour And Tories

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking in Blackpool this morning after the party's by-election victory (Alamy)

5 min read

The local election performances of both the Green Party and Reform could give an indication of electoral challenges to come for Labour and the Conservatives into the general election and beyond, electoral experts have suggested.

Council and mayoral results are due to come in throughout Friday, with a full idea of the picture across the country not likely to be available until later in the weekend. 

The Conservatives appear to be on track to lose hundreds of seats across the contests, while Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and independent candidates have all been making gains. 

Following the first tranche of figures through Friday morning, pollsters have suggested that these local elections have given a hint of the challenges to come for both Rishi Sunak as he tries to keep Conservative losses at bay, and Keir Starmer, as he looks set to gain a majority at the next General election.

As well as the local elections on Thursday, there was also a by-election in the North West. The Conservatives were close to being pushed into third place by Reform in the Blackpool South by-election, beating them by only 117 votes. 

Scarlett Maguire, a director at JL Partners polling agency, told PoliticsHome that although the party did not perform as well as UKIP did in the seat in 2015, she predicts it could “still harm the Conservatives” in the long-run ahead of the general election. 

She explained: “One of the differences between Reform and UKIP is even though UKIP draw drew more support from the Conservatives than it did from Labour and Lib Dems, it  was slightly more evenly spread where whereas Reform are basically only hurting the Conservatives.”

Maguire said that more Reform voters are coming from 2019 Conservative voters than those who backed Labour and even though there are “question marks about their ground game come a general election”, Reform “look like they’re going to cause some havoc”. 

“I think it's a very it's a very dangerous sign for the Conservatives,” she added. 

Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, thought that Reform’s performance in Blackpool South was “not very impressive” and they are “a long way” from the by-election performances of UKIP in the years preceding the 2016 Brexit vote, but said that the party “don't need to do very very well to give the Conservatives a massive bloody nose in the general election”. 

Sunak’s party are “now so exposed to the loss of Reform votes on their right flank”. 

“We've definitely seen that Conservatives do worse in local council ward contests where Reform is standing candidates,” he added. 

The Green Party, however, are an “interesting counterpoint” to Reform’s performance, Maguire said, with their results offering signs of “little red warning lights” of potential problems for a Labour government under Keir Starmer. 

As of Friday morning, the Greens had made more than a dozen gains across the country, and while she thought the Greens are not going to “cause Labour damage at the scale of Reform damaging the Conservatives” they could signify discontent in certain places. 

Maguire believed that the impact is “unbalanced” for the moment, with Reform cutting away at the Tories at a greater rate than the Greens are on the left, and this could continue at a General Election, with voters on the left voting tactically to get the Conservatives out “that you don’t quite see in the local in the same way”. 

She explained: “So I think it's less a thing of the Labour facing a massive threat from the left this election round, but I think is giving us an insight into what troubles the next few years might have or what the interesting political stories might be, as Labour struggles to keep together a voting coalition, which is potentially just as tricky as the Conservatives’ has been but spanning a slightly different part of the electorate.” 

Ford believes that as of Friday morning, the Greens could be on track for their best performance in terms of average vote shares, and there could be signs of “storing up trouble for years to come”. 

The Greens’ results “does seem to be part of a broader story of labour, perhaps not doing as well maybe taking a bit of a hit on its kind of progressive left flank,” he said.  

“Labour seems to be treading water a bit in places that have a lot of students that have a lot of remain voters where they're starting very strong,” Ford added, but thought that the party may not mind that strategically, as they make gains in other Leave-leaning or swing areas .

“We're seeing the Greens making some quite impressive breakthroughs in various places,” he explained. 

“If that continues today, that could be their best performance ever, and it means they're starting to build a platform in local government, often in places where Labour is strong.” 

That position could be “a bit of a headache” once Labour are no longer the opposition, he added. 

Adam Drummond, the head of political and social research at Opinium, acknowledged the Green and Reform performances, but thought that the overall trend of the local elections is that “the boring story is true” and “national voting intent polls are broadly speaking about correct”. 

However, the results are a demonstration of “the different roles” the smaller parties are now playing. 

“Reform’s role is to register right-wing discontent with the Tories, the Greens' role is to register that discontent with Labour and the Lib Dems' role is basically to help remove the Tories where where Labour doesn't have a strong presence.”

Like Ford, he envisaged that Labour are building up more votes in the areas that they need to gain, but not necessarily in the same way in more traditional city safe seats.  

Drummond added: “The main crumb of comfort that I could give to to the Tory party is that this suggests that a first or second term Labour government might have trouble keeping its coalition together. 

“But if that's the thing that you're waiting for, then you're not in a great situation.” 

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