Story of England’s local election results may not be an easy read-through

The outcome will give an indication of voter sentiment but may not lay down a hard marker

Voters went to the polls on Thursday in England to elect 8,000 councillors across more than 230 local authorities. Yet to grasp the potential permutations and ramifications of these elections it is necessary to remember the backdrop to the last time local voters went to the polls in 2019. The before-and-after here is critical.

Both Labour and the Conservative Party were struggling under desperately unpopular leaders in May 2019. The Tories were floundering in the rancorous dying days of Theresa May’s unpopular administration while Labour were equally fractured and bewildered under Jeremy Corbyn. Both parties performed equally poorly, with about 31 per cent of the vote each. The Liberal Democrats had a good result with 17 per cent, while the Green Party and Independents scooped more than a fifth.

The importance of this is that the Tory party is not defending this week the barnstorming electoral triumph that Boris Johnson achieved later in 2019. Its baseline is much lower. Therefore its losses may not be as catastrophic as its current near-fixed position in the national polls – more than 15 per cent behind Labour – might suggest.

This week’s local elections in England will be useful as an indicator of voter sentiment in advance of next year’s general election. But they will not be definitive. The types of councils that are up for election this week are mostly rural, which favours the Tory party. A national read-through on the results may not be clear cut.


It is certain that there will be some sort of a swing to Labour from the Conservatives. But the final extent of it, which will emerge only later on Friday afternoon when all councils have reported, matters.

Tories are deliberately talking down their prospects, predicting they could lose 1,000 seats. Yet if that were to actually happen it would be a huge worry for prime minister Rishi Sunak and a complete disaster for the party, as it would be a huge loss on an already dismal result in 2019. The national political narrative would immediately revert to the mantra that the Tories are doomed at the next general election.

If the Tories can limit their losses to 500 or below, then the party’s spinners will be able to craft a narrative that the Labour surge under Keir Starmer is not inexorable and there is still hope for next year.

Labour says it is targeting an increase of about 7 per cent in its share of the vote. Polling guru John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde says the party needs a swing of at least 10 per cent in the local elections to sustain the narrative that Starmer may be on his way to Number 10 Downing Street after the next general election.

A further complication lies in the fact that whatever the result, it will be swamped in the news cycle by the coronation on Saturday of King Charles. That gives Labour and Tory spinners until Tuesday, when parliament returns after the bank holiday, to craft their messaging.

The councils to look out for include Stoke-on-Trent, which will give an indication of Labour’s ability to win back ground previously lost to Conservatives in the working class north, and Medway in Kent, where a Labour victory could indicate that the party is on for a landslide next year.