Voters in the UK will head to the polls on May 3, 2018 for the first England-wide test of electoral opinion since last year's dramatic general election. Our author gives you an overview of the national picture, the situation for each party and tells you what results to look out for.
The National Picture
In the UK’s 2017 General Election, the ruling Conservative Party were faced by an unexpected surge in support for the Labour opposition and barely held on to power, losing their majority of seats in the UK Parliament and relying on a small right-wing Northern Irish party to provide support for their minority government. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have remained closely matched in the polls: the 2018 English local elections will be one of the first large-scale electoral tests since then.
England’s local elections are segmented chronologically; that is, the map of which councils are voting is different every year, on a four or five-year rotation depending on the council. This year primarily sees urban boroughs and cities casting their ballots, especially in the north of England and across all the boroughs of London – meaning that the battleground is much more in traditional Labour territory than Conservative. Most of these areas were last contested in 2014, though some councils that usually elect a third of their members at any one time are having larger “all-ups” out of sequence as a result of changed electoral wards. The polling situation has changed dramatically since 2014 – both parties were neck and neck, as is the case now, when these elections were last contested, but with a much higher vote share for the hard-right UK Independence Party, which after a succession of poor leaders and internal conflicts has seen its candidate numbers topple and its local electoral base collapse. In this year’s set of seats, it’s likely that Labour will be the largest beneficiaries, winning back working-class areas that fell to UKIP four years ago. Rallings & Thrasher, who model UK local elections, suggest that UKIP could lose over 100 seats, and that the Conservatives, despite being even with Labour nationally, are likely to take some tens of losses, probably largely as a result of returning UKIP voters strengthening Labour’s support in their traditional heartlands.
Overview by party
The Labour Party, the UK’s major centre-left party and the one which is defending the most seats in these elections, will be looking to repeat the enthusiasm that marked their 2017 performance. Then, under the leadership of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, they surged from ten points behind to nearly level with the Conservatives. Labour’s biggest council-scale targets are likely to be mostly in London, where the boroughs of Barnet, Westminster, and Wandsworth are all serious targets with the borough of Kensington also a possible pick-up. Labour is not in danger of losing many councils even if a few seats elsewhere are under threat, and all-up votes the big urban councils of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle seem unlikely to trouble the party. Assessments of their performance are likely to be based on the London battleground more than the overall balance of seats gained and lost. Labour’s huge membership, larger than most of the UK’s other parties combined, gives them a potentially significant campaigning edge, though it remains to be seen whether at a local level, and without so much media and social media hype around their leader, they will be able to turn their membership base into an effective campaigning force. The party has also been dogged by allegations of senior members covering up for or being apologists for anti-Semites, and the difference between the more anti-Brexit views of its electorate and its largely pro-Brexit parliamentary voting record may also have weakened its support – though neither factor appears to be showing up much in national polls that still show Labour extremely tightly matched with the Conservatives.
The Conservatives, the UK’s main right-wing party, face a fresh challenge as they fight on an electoral map dominated by urban and suburban areas in which they have largely been losing ground. Currently in government nationally under Prime Minister Theresa May, they have been dogged by race-related scandals of their own recently, as huge numbers of Caribbean migrants who came to the UK as citizens prior to the 1970s have been reported to have been stripped of citizenship and in some cases deported by the Home Office for being unable to prove their residency rights in the UK. The “Windrush scandal”, as it has been dubbed, is leading to a string of stories about anti-immigration actions by the Home Office – a doubly damaging set of revelations for the party as the now Prime Minister was in charge of the department from 2010 to 2016. May’s Conservatives (often known colloquially as “Tories” in UK politics) will mainly be looking to defend their London boroughs from Labour and are likely to lose ground overall, though they may be able to take opportunities to pick up some UKIP seats or strengthen their control in a few more socially conservative midlands councils.
Vince Cable, the former business minister now leading the Liberal Democrats, will be leading his activists to concentrate on a far smaller electoral map than either of the two major party leaders, though not one that will necessarily favour his hopes of making gains in his first major election as leader. His centre-left liberal party is still struggling to recover from heavy electoral losses sustained whilst they were in coalition with the Conservatives before 2015, and despite their new selling point of being the country’s largest pro-EU political force the party remains stubbornly under ten percent in the polls. On top of that, the party has most of the English councils it still controls – six of them –voting this year, including defending relatively Eurosceptic areas like Eastleigh on the south coast. There are some potentially brighter signs for the party in London, where the party could gain control of at least one and possibly two boroughs from the Conservatives; across the rest of the predominantly Labour-facing map the party is likely to struggle to make any significant advances.
As for smaller parties, UKIP is likely to get mercilessly crushed between Labour and the Conservatives, probably this year with Labour as the larger (but not sole) beneficiaries. Given their greatly decreased candidate numbers and flatlining national polls, it’s hard to see any upsides for them; if they manage to hold onto around 30-40 seats they will have significantly outperformed expectations, and a complete wipeout or something very close to it is very much on the cards. The Green Party have some tough fights to hold onto their already small council base, which between the Liberal Democrats cornering the pro-EU vote and Labour mopping up left-wing voters more effectively under Corbyn risks further losses. Their key fights will be to hold onto the four borough seats they hold in London, and to try and hold onto some seats in Norwich, a traditional area of strength where Labour crushed their vote share in both 2016 and 2017.
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