Voting has opened in local elections across England that have been billed as crucial progress markers for British prime minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer, but are also seen as hard to predict and likely to deliver results mixed enough for all to be able to claim at least some success.
In an attempt to manage expectations, the prime minister declared on Wednesday evening that the results would be “hard for us” and admitted some Conservative councillors would lose their seats as a result of events “over the past year”.
Mr Sunak predicted a “tough night” and said voters would “make us sweat”, but added: “It does feel like we’re finally beginning to turn the corner on the cost of living.”
The language seemed designed to chime with senior Tories who have tried to dampen expectations about the results. Both the Conservatives and Labour will seek to build a narrative from the outcome about their chances in the next general election.
A potentially confounding factor on Thursday will be the first mass use of mandatory ID for a UK election outside Northern Ireland, with seemingly limited knowledge among voters about the new laws and worries that some people will be turned away as a result.
The elections cover slightly more than 8,000 seats across 230 councils in England, including metropolitan, unitary and district authorities, plus four mayoral races.
The seats were last contested in 2019, at a point when Theresa May was weeks away from announcing her departure as prime minister, with the Conservatives losing more than 1,300 seats.
Labour were themselves struggling under Jeremy Corbyn, and lost 86 councillors, with the big winners being the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
This has complicated modelling for Thursday. Mr Sunak’s party has opted for the traditional strategy of expectation management, with ministers predicting at least 1,000 more losses, allowing the Tories to hail a victory even if they lose hundreds of seats.
Some Conservative MPs are concerned just as much about signs that sections of the party’s voter base could simply choose not to turn out at all, which would be viewed as an indicator that Mr Sunak is not generating enthusiasm.
Mr Starmer is arguably under just as much pressure, with observers – and his MPs – preparing to scrutinise whether Labour can secure a big enough percentage-point margin in total votes over the Conservatives to point to a likely general election win next year.
Extrapolating national vote shares from a snapshot of councils is difficult to do accurately, however, especially given the anomalous results from 2019, when almost 700 independent and minor party councillors were elected.
The Liberal Democrats have campaigned hard in so-called “blue wall” commuter-belt seats in areas such as Surrey and Oxfordshire, hoping to peel off softer Conservative voters disillusioned with the party’s recent chaos and policy shift towards the authoritarian right.
The Lib Dems are expecting gains, even on top of their 700-plus new councillors from 2019.
The Greens are in a similar position. Winning almost 200 extra seats in 2019, the party is predicting more net wins, and could even win majority control of a council for the first time, in Mid Suffolk. - Guardian