Local Elections 2021

As the 2021 local elections draw closer, DRD Associate, Samantha Beggs takes a look at what they might have in store for the main parties, and how they will shape thinking ahead of 2024.

In just two weeks, millions of voters will return (socially distanced of course) to ballot boxes across the country to elect new councillors, mayors in London and twelve other English metropolitan areas, and 39 Police and Crime Commissioners. At the same time, voters in Scotland and Wales will cast their votes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd elections – a bumper election year! The delay of the 2020 local elections (due to Covid-19) makes these the biggest set of local elections since 1973, when local government was reorganised.

While voter turnout is generally lower for local elections (unless they happen to fall in line with a general election) 2021 will be a good opportunity to test national political sentiment. Voters haven’t had the opportunity to “have their say” since the 2019 General Election so voter fatigue shouldn’t be a factor this year – in fact, it might be a good excuse to get outside for your dose of daily exercise!

How very unpredictable

In a sense, elections since 2016 have been fairly predictable since voting often came down to “leave” or “remain” but since Boris “got Brexit done”, the day has finally come when Brexit, though still a factor for some (particularly Labour voters), is no longer the main issue of the day. Now voters worry about Covid-19, vaccines, economic recovery, job security and the NHS. Some of those things plays into Labour’s hands, some into Tory. So what does that actually mean in terms of seats?

Well at national level, the latest YouGov voting intention figures see Labour’s share of the vote slip to its lowest level under Keir Starmer yet at just 29%. The Conservative Party share is now at 43%. It’s a pretty worrying picture for Labour, particularly as they were neck-and-neck with the Conservatives at the start of the year. And while Labour might’ve hoped that campaigning hard on nurses pay would bag them some major wins, the Government’s highly successful vaccination programme has bolstered its lead. Millions of people have now had their jab or “freedom” or patriotism (unless you’re under 30) and that, coupled with a return to beer gardens, long overdue haircuts, and some retail therapy has boosted public confidence and mood.

Changing the tide on the 2019 election results

However, the Conservative Party shouldn’t rest on its laurels. In the last local elections in 2019, both main parties suffered significant losses, but the Tories fared worst, losing over 1,300 seats in more than 40 councils. The Liberal Democrats were the biggest winners, gaining 700 councillors across the country. Oddly, because of the unexpected General Elections results in December 2019, some local authorities have Conservative Members of Parliament, but no Conservative representation at local level. For them, this will be a test to see how good their constituency MPs have been at building up the Conservative “brand”. Following the 2019 GE trend, all eyes will be on the former “red” turned “blue wall”. Johnson had big plans, but Covid-19 halted much of that, so has he and his party done enough up North? Amongst other policy priorities, the ‘levelling up’ agenda seems to be some distance from delivering results.

Councils worth watching

Sandwell and Rotherham are both examples of councils with Conservative parliamentary representatives but no Tory councillors. In Sandwell, Labour holds every seat on the council so it should be a guaranteed win for Labour, however since 2016, the two parliamentary constituencies have both gone blue, and by fairly hefty margins. If the Tories don’t make some gains here, CCHQ may want to have a few words with the local MPs…

Doncaster is also worth keeping an eye on. Although the Conservatives hold a small number of seats, Labour’s got 43 of the 55, as well as the mayoralty. However, in 2017, they lost the Don Valley seat to Tory MP Nick Fletcher. The Conservatives also made significant gains Doncaster North and Doncaster Central in 2019.

Boris and Keir’s teams will be watching councils like Durham closely – in 2017, Labour lost a number of seats, mostly to independents, though that was under Jeremy Corbyn’s rather uninspiring leadership. With a new leader at the helm, it’ll be interesting to see if Labour can win some seats back – though worth noting, the Conservatives occupy three of the five parliamentary seats here.

Elsewhere, Northumberland, which Labour lost in 2017 is probably one of their best opportunities (outside London, of course) to gain some seats back. Councils like Milton Keynes are anyone’s guess but worth following – they’ve got a fairly even split between Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem so it’ll be interesting to see who, out of the two main parties (probably), takes control. Speaking of Lib Dems – rather predictably, they will probably find themselves battling mainly with the Tories around the Home Counties but expect to see some small pockets of yellow popping up elsewhere too. They came in a strong second place in the 2019 General Election in Wokingham – they’ll expect to pick up a few seats here.

A helpful litmus test

This year’s local elections will prove a valuable litmus test for those in Westminster – even if they are more about potholes, dog fouling and bin collections, than any grand manifesto plan. The vaccine rollout will allow the Prime Minister to begin focusing on recovery, securing Global Britain’s place in the world, and delivering his ‘levelling up’ agenda. But it’s going to come at a cost, and the Tories can’t masquerade as “Con-socialists” as Richard Tice puts it, forever. Looking ahead to 2024, he might have three years to do it, but if he wants to keep his blue wall blue, Boris must start seriously looking at how his levelling up agenda can tackle regional disparity…moving the House of Commons to Yorkshire probably isn’t going to cut it.

Image Source: Citizens Advice Salford