Freshwater’s public affairs team provide insight and analysis into some of the key issues that will affect the results of the local elections.
Today across the United Kingdom, the results of regional and local council elections could acutely impact the national political scene.
In 1995 the Labour Party secured 1,807 council seats following the selection of Tony Blair as leader of the party. In 1981 Michael Foot gained 988 seats. In 2012 Ed Miliband’s Labour Party succeeded in winning over 800 councillors following George Osborne’s “omnishambles” budget. However - and despite today’s upcoming local elections following an arguably more controversial budget - these figures present a precedent that Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will struggle to match. Current polling shows that he could lose more than 250 council seats along with a number of Labour seats in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
While Labour looks set to form a minority Welsh Government, its position as the official opposition in Scotland faces the existential threat of a resurgent Conservative Party under the leadership of Ruth Davidson. As the SNP continues to soar in the polls, both Labour and the Conservatives have built their respective campaigns on the need to deliver a strong opposition for the sake of democratic accountability. With an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament, coupled with the party having 54 MPs in the House of Commons, concerns of a one-party state have been raised across the Labour-Conservative divide.
Meanwhile, a number of Labour MPs are already judging these elections as a test of electoral credibility - a poor performance may grease the wheels of a future leadership challenge. Two by-elections in the Labour strongholds of Ogmore and Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough are, however, almost certain to return two Labour MPs. Ogmore elected its first Labour MP, Vernon Hartshorn, in 1918, and the seat has been coloured red ever since. While the popular local MP Huw Irranca-Davies is leaving to fight for a seat in the assembly, all indications are that Labour candidate Chris Elmore will win with ease. In Sheffield, the sudden death of Labour’s MP Harry Harpham makes it unlikely that its candidate Gill Furniss, a city councillor and Mr Harpham’s widow, will be unsuccessful.
In London’s mayoral race, Sadiq Kahn’s stable lead in the polls could provide the Labour Party’s biggest victory of the night and an important glimmer of hope for its prospects nationally.
An ever growing chasm of opinion between the Conservative Party’s executive and its members may prove to have hindered the enthusiasm of its campaign to convert supporters into voters at the ballot box. Local party campaigners, who are often more likely to be disillusioned with the European Union, are witnessing senior figures in the party campaigning virulently against Brexit. And, while some local councillors agree with the government, recent actions and statements have angered the party base who, more than anything, are looking for a fair fight in June’s referendum.
Without an army of dedicated and passionate members knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, a good turnout is hard to achieve even with core voters doing their duty. Dispassion among the Conservative Party is, obversely, mirrored by an enthused Labour base whose membership has increased by 200,000 since last summer. The Labour Party’s divisions are mainly restricted to the Parliamentary Labour Party while its membership, on the whole, remains united behind Corbyn’s leadership. A greater presence on the streets of towns and cities across the UK could help mitigate the losses Labour may otherwise face.
At the last wholly local elections in 2014 the turnout was 35.3%, slightly up on the previous local elections in 2012. Expectations are that there will be a similar turnout in the English local elections, but that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections should see a higher turnout -somewhere in the region of 45%-50%. Meanwhile, the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections will want to improve upon their disastrously low, verging on the undemocratic, 2012 turnout of under 15%. This is unlikely: very few people even know who their PCC is, and it has recently been confirmed that a meagre £2,700 has been spent by the Home Office on publicising this year’s election (even in 2012 it spent more than £3m).
For Labour, getting positive election messages out has been hampered by a major internal fallout and resulting media story over anti-Semitism within the party. Naz Shah MP was suspended, along with a number of councillors, for remarks made on Twitter and Facebook, as was the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, after he toured studios in Central London in an ill-thought out attempt to defend Ms Shah. Nevertheless, the Labour Party has attempted to shift people’s ire onto the tax regime, which is increasingly thought of as unfair. This has proved a popular issue for Labour after a number of blunders by the government, including George Osborne’s £130m ‘sweetheart deal’ for Google and evidence garnered from the Panama Papers that David Cameron benefitted from his late father’s offshore trust.
The Conservatives have also struggled to get ‘cut-through’ of their election messages, which include a focus on the implementation of a seven-day NHS, beleaguered by striking junior doctors who have the support of the general public. In general, the party has been monopolised by the upcoming EU referendum. While this may mean their eye has been taken off the local election ball, it may also be the case that some voters will be encouraged to vote Tory today due to the government’s support for staying in.
In London, David Cameron has spoken frequently about the danger of voting for Sadiq Khan, loosely castigating him as an extremist sympathiser and a danger to the capital. The Conservative mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has used this particular front to attack Mr Khan too; the crescendo being a much criticised article by Mr Goldsmith in the Evening Standard provocatively run against a backdrop of images from the 7/7 bombings. It is fair to say that, given the substantial lead in the polls for Sadiq Khan, the message isn’t working.
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