Local Elections: Sunak vs Starmer

May 2, 2023 admin

Photo credit: Sky News

By Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel, Sovereign Strategy

Thursday’s local elections are the first real opportunity for Labour to transform a consistent polling lead into an electoral success.  With polling in around 8,000 local council wards — over 3,300 of which currently being held by the Conservatives up for grabs – it’s a big chance for Keir Starmer to give Rishi Sunak a bit of kicking.

Large areas of the UK are uncontested in this round of elections though – there are no seats up for grabs in Scotland, Wales, or London – so results will not be representative of opinion in the country as a whole and we must be cautious about extrapolating that result.  Northern Ireland’s local elections aren’t for another couple of weeks and will happen on Thursday 18th May.

But the locals in England will play a role as a measure of the country’s mood and in determining Labour’s momentum in the months leading up to next year’s General Election. In May last year, when the last round of local elections (in different seats) was held, the Labour lead was in the single figures. Now, although it has declined from a peak of around 30% during the disastrous days of Liz Truss and Britain’s worst-ever Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, Labour’s lead is in the mid-teens.

Conservative losses on Thursday are almost guaranteed. It’s unlikely the losses will be fewer than 500 seats, but if they exceed 1,000 seats that will be widely accepted as a bad night for Rishi Sunak. Towards the upper end of that range, and the Labour Party become the largest party of local government in Britain for the first time in nearly two decades.

The recent volatility in British politics means that both main parties will have a wider range of options if they have to spin disappointing results. The Conservatives will be able to point to Labour’s declining polling lead and argue that Rishi Sunak is only getting started at restoring trust in the Conservative Party after a turbulent few years.  One very senior Conservative figure predicted to me privately in recent days that Labour’s polling lead will be in the single figures by the autumn.

Losses for the governing party are always expected at this stage in the electoral cycle, and anything less than resounding Labour gains will be interpreted as evidence of Keir Starmer’s lacklustre performance as leader. As well as this, governing parties increasing their popularity in the weeks ahead of general elections is a predictable pattern in British politics, so the Conservative Party can be expected to cut into any Labour polling lead in the run-up to a General.

Labour, in contrast, will likely point to the fact that the last time these seats were contested was in May 2019 in the last — and most turbulent — months of Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister.  So that will temper disappointment if gains are lower than expected.  Less than stellar results for opposition parties may also be blamed on the introduction of voter ID in England, a major – but absolutely necessary – change in the process of how people vote.  Critics of the policy say that it is a cynical move by the government, targeting a non-existent problem of voter fraud and designed to deter younger and lower-income voters from turning out.  We’ll see.

Nationally, heavy Conservative losses would not only show the declining popularity of the party but could also indicate significant tactical voting, making it a doubly bad sign for the party.  Observed before the 1997 election, significant levels of tactical voting would suggest hardened opposition to the government and limited potential for them to regain ground.  Analysis converting local results into national vote share projections is also worth looking at – the two main projects performing this analysis are Rallings and Thrasher’s National Equivalent Vote and the BBC’s Projected National Share, both of which will be published on Friday.