10 April 2024

LocalGov Elections: Ones to watch in May

LocalGov Elections: Ones to watch in May image
Image: chrisdorney / Shutterstock.com.

Dr Greg Stride, Senior Researcher, Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) provides a primer for the upcoming local elections.

2024 is the year of elections. More voters than ever before will be heading to the polls, representing roughly half of the world’s population. This isn’t quite the same thing as 2024 being the year of democracy. Elections do not guarantee that voters have a genuine choice at the ballot box, or that they can be sure their vote will be counted as they expect, or even that they have the freedom to campaign, stand for election or vote in accordance with their genuine preference. But elections, when conducted with integrity, are the foundation of democratic legitimacy. Without free and fair elections, democracy as we know it is impossible.

That’s why, as we head into these local elections, I want to start by extending our gratitude to the local electoral services staff who, as our research has shown, work tirelessly under increasingly difficult conditions to ensure that we can have confidence in the results of our elections, granting us a privilege many across the world do not have.

Equally, we should thank the people who stand for election, who will be eagerly awaiting the results on the 3rd May to find out if they can continue to do the difficult and important job of representing their residents.

But they’re not the only people watching the results. Many of us will be staying up late to see the ballot papers counted. To help everyone who wants to know where to look to understand the results, we have put together a guide on which contests promise to be the most interesting this year.

A good place to start is with where the major parties launched their campaigns, always a useful indicator of where they have their sights set on. Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative campaign in Derbyshire with East Midlands mayoral candidate (and MP for Mansfield and leader of Nottinghamshire County Council) Ben Bradley. The East Midlands mayor is a new role for the new combined authority, and definitely one that we’ll be watching.

On top of this there are several councils that might switch control, in which Conservatives play a major part. We recommend watching Redditch, Rugby and Dudley in the West Midlands, Thurrock, Harlow and Basildon in the East, Pendle and Hyndburn in the North West, Adur in the south east, and Dorset and Gloucester in the South West to see how well the Conservatives can defend slim majorities or win back the necessary seats to take full control.

The Liberal Democrats launched their campaign in Hertfordshire, a part of the country that has been traditionally Conservative-dominated until recent years. In North Hertfordshire, where the whole council is up for election following boundary changes, the Liberal Democrats are currently running the council in coalition with Labour. An opportunity to contest every seat is also an opportunity for them to take control of the council, which is currently split almost exactly three ways between the three big English parties.

Maybe the answer to the question of why the Liberal Democrats chose to launch in Hertfordshire isn’t because of the councils they might win there, but because of the position Hertfordshire plays as part of the traditional ‘blue wall,’ the Conservative heartland seats across the east and South East (and South West to a lesser extent) where the Liberal Democrats have been capitalising from traditional Conservative voters’ disaffection. This probably shows us where a Liberal Democrat general election will be aiming.

But, because we are more interested in council control than the overall strength of Liberal Democrat support (and local elections more than general elections), we will be watching Wokingham (where the party could take majority control for the first time since 1997), Dorset, Gloucester, Brentwood, Stockport, Basingstoke & Dean and Hull.

Labour launched their campaign in Dudley, where the Conservatives have held a majority since 2021, but a set of boundary changes mean all seats are up for election rather than the usual third of seats, an opportunity Labour will be seeking to use to regain a majority they last held in 2016.

This is quite an unusual set of elections for Labour, given that last year they became the largest party of local government for the first time in over 20 years, that inevitably means that they will be defending more councils than they are seeking to win. By our reckoning about 40% of councils with elections this year are Labour majority councils, compared to only 15% for the Conservatives.

However, there are still many opportunities for Labour to take control, especially over NOC councils, and three major chances to win mayoral seats in the form of the mayor of the West Midlands and the Mayor of the Tees Valley – both currently held by Conservatives – and the new North East mayoral combined authority. If Andy Street and Ben Houchen lose their seats to Labour candidates, then we may be looking at a set of combined authority mayors dominated by Labour.

Then there are the smaller parties. Or rather, the parties that are smaller on a national scale, but crucial in local elections across the country. Look to Bristol, Worcester, Stroud and Hastings for the impact of the Green party. The wider east of England, especially on the coast, to see if the Reform party starts to pick up seats that years ago were won by UKIP. And, as always, independents and residents’ associations across places like Tandridge and Runnymede, are great examples of where the localness of local elections comes into play.

There is a tendency, especially in the year of a general election, to see local elections as secondary. But they are an equal part of our democracy. Councillors are elected with their own mandate, based on the strength of local feeling, and with the responsibility to represent their residents. Local councils are full of dedicated councillors who have a genuine and profound effect on the lives of every citizen, and by voting in these elections we can have a direct impact on our local area in a way that voting in a general election could never achieve.

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