Voters turn agains Conservatives and Sunak in English local elections

Labour and Liberal Democrats make gains as Tory losses match most pessimistic predictions

Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives on Friday suffered crushing losses in polls for English councils although experts said the results did not point to a clear Labour win at the next general election.

After a tumultuous year, the prime minister’s party was on the ropes across the country, with Labour making inroads in the north and Midlands and the Liberal Democrats advancing in rich areas of the south.

Early results suggested the Conservatives could lose as many as 1,000 council seats compared with their standing before the elections, and lose control of a swath of local authorities, matching some of the party’s most pessimistic predictions.

Labour said it was making gains in the kinds of seats it needed to win back power at the general election expected next year. “Make no mistake, this means that we are on course for a Labour majority of the next election — a very, very good set of results for us,” said Keir Starmer, party leader.


Despite the jubilation inside the Labour party, Mr Starmer still has work to do to be confident in winning an outright majority at the next general election, with gains shared with Lib Dems and the Greens.

By mid-afternoon, the BBC’s projected national share analysis put Labour on 35 per cent against the Tories on 26 per cent.

Labour said that would be the party’s best result since 1997, the year of Tony Blair’s general election landslide.

John Curtice, a respected psephologist, said that if replicated at a general election the nine-point lead could be “perhaps just enough” for an outright majority at Westminster. He pointed out that Labour’s share of the vote was no higher than last year and that its lead reflected a slump in the Tory figure.

“Labour will be disappointed that it looks as though their vote is simply on a par with their performance in last year’s local elections, although the Conservatives are still five points down on 12 months ago,” Mr Curtice said.

But Michael Thrasher, of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre, said results in seats such as Hartlepool, Lincoln and Tamworth showed Labour was “falling short” of a general election-winning performance.

“Even where it has done well, like Plymouth, the increase in vote share, though large, is not large enough for an overall majority at the next general election,” he said.

In southern England Labour took control of Medway council in Kent from the Tories for the first time since its creation in 1998. It also seized Plymouth city council in south-west England and Swindon in Wiltshire, which had been in Conservative hands for 19 years.

In the former “red wall” of northern England and the Midlands — areas that fell to Boris Johnson’s Tories at the 2019 election — Labour took control of Stoke-on-Trent, Erewash and Blackpool while winning the Middlesbrough mayoralty.

By shortly after 4.30pm, the Conservatives had lost control of 25 councils, including Brentwood in Essex, Tamworth in Staffordshire, Hertsmere in Hertfordshire, East Lindsey in Lincolnshire and North West Leicestershire.

Of those Labour seized 10 and the Lib Dems five while 10 shifted to no overall control.

Labour had gained 288 seats compared with its position immediately before the local elections, while the Lib Dems had gained 201 and the Conservatives had lost 422.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said the results had given him a “Cheshire cat” smile. His party has made progress in wealthy former Tory areas, taking Stratford-upon-Avon and Windsor and Maidenhead council — an area represented by former prime minister Theresa May.

Mr Sunak said voters had made it clear that they wanted him to focus on their priorities — the economy, NHS and immigration — and insisted the Tories had made progress in limited areas such as Peterborough.

But the results sparked reprisals in the Conservative ranks. “It’s a gloomy, gloomy, gloomy mood,” said one Tory official. “CCHQ did not run anywhere near a competent campaign, to be frank.”

Since the last set of local elections, the Tories have had three prime ministers — Johnson, Liz Truss and Mr Sunak — and have presided over a period of political and economic chaos.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023