Skip Navigation

News opinion

Council carnage, a potential Tory leadership challenge and a summer election? Seven things to look out for in UK politics

May 2, 2024

In a new article for The Conversation, Ben Williams, Associate Tutor in Politics and Social Sciences at Edge Hill University, previews the likely fall out from the local elections.

The May local elections are shaping up to be the last major test of public opinion before the much-awaited general election on the horizon at an unspecified point this year.

There are more than 2,600 local council seats being contested, covering 107 local authorities in England. On a bigger and more symbolic scale, there are 11 English regional mayoral contests, including in Manchester and London.

There are also elections for 37 police and crime commissioners for England and Wales. No elections are happening in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

At the start of the year, it was speculated that the local elections could coincide with the general election, but the Conservatives’ persistently dismal polling figures have put paid to that option. The consensus now indicates a likely autumn general election.

These local votes will nevertheless be a crucial indicator of the public mood. Here are seven things to look out for:

1. A vote share of barely 20% for the Tories

Based on current polling, the Conservatives will certainly have limited optimism and morale going into this cycle of elections. With consistently big Labour poll leads of 20 points or more, prime minister Rishi Sunak will be seeking to manage expectations rather than hoping for a good result.

When these seats were last fought in 2021, Boris Johnson was prime minister and was still relatively popular. The Conservatives won an impressive 40% of the national vote.

Current polling suggests Sunak can expect something more like a percentage share in the low 20s. As a concerning historical precedent for the Conservatives, John Major’s government slumped to 25% of the local election vote in 1995 ahead of a huge general election loss in 1997.

2. A leadership challenge against Rishi Sunak

A very bad result could spell immediate trouble for Sunak, even before the general election. It has been suggested that a leadership challenge, potentially from the right of the party, could follow a terrible night at the locals.

A loss of 500 of the roughly 900 council seats being defended by the Conservatives is predicted as being a moment of danger for Sunak’s premiership. Some of his most ardent internal critics will argue that Sunak is just not cutting through to the public, and that another leader would have a better chance of preventing a rout at the general election.

Should a leadership challenge be mounted after the local elections, Sunak could respond by calling a snap summer election for June in order to flush out and defeat his internal critics – and to prevent even worse intra-party divisions emerging.

3. A huge turnaround for Labour…

Labour only polled 30% when this set of seats were last fought during a period of recovery and transition between the Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer leadership eras.

With the party now consistently polling over 40%, the key test is to see if such polling translates into actual votes.

Labour will be looking to make gains in key English regions aligned with the party’s parliamentary target seats (notably in parts of the southern suburbs and the northern “red wall” areas). The scale of local election gains will indicate what the party can perhaps expect at an upcoming general election, and influence future strategy and targeting accordingly.

The party will expect to retain Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty in London for a third term, despite a determined Conservative challenge.

4.…but warning signs over Gaza

Labour will also hope that disaffected left wing voters do not continue to drift to the Greens, who have made some progress at recent local elections, often in traditional Labour areas.

There are also indicators from recent council byelections that both left independents and Liberal Democrats have made some inroads following Labour’s shift towards the centre and as a result of opposition to its position on the Gaza conflict. This could also undermine the party’s overall momentum.

Downing Street
Downing Street

5. Incumbent mayors under pressure

While most of the large city (metro) mayoralties are Labour strongholds, the Conservatives retained both the West Midlands and Tees Valley in 2021. Both are considered to be traditional Labour areas but also formed part of the critical red wall that fell to the Conservatives in 2019. Both areas contain multiple marginal parliamentary seats.

Should one or both of the high-profile incumbents Andy Street and Ben Houchen lose, it would represent a severe setback to longer-term Conservative electoral prospects and strategy. Both mayors have been very popular, so losing to Labour would fuel the negative narrative and backward momentum blighting the Conservatives.

6. A byelection the Tories wanted to bury

As a further electoral twist on a busy polling day, the Blackpool South byelection is also taking place. This follows the resignation of Conservative MP Scott Benton over a lobbying scandal.

After a series of byelection losses, the Conservatives scheduled this byelection on the same day as multiple other votes, probably with a view to minimising damaging headlines. A Labour gain in this marginal seat appears inevitable, given that the Tories have a majority of just 3,700 (11.3%). It’s the scale of the victory that counts here, though. Labour is aiming for a huge swing in order to keep up the narrative that has surrounded previous byelections this year.

7. A big test for turnout and voter ID

There are real concerns that new voter ID rules may suppress voter turnout. Last year it was estimated that 14,000 people were stopped from voting in the May elections – the first to enforce voter ID.

In an already low turnout environment, similar figures could suppress participation and potentially have a critical impact on various close-run results across the country.

Looking ahead

There are lots of interesting dynamics at play on May 2. There are meaningful consequences for local communities, who are voting for new councillors and mayors – and there are more nebulous consequences for the party leaders. What happens at the local level could significantly influence the likely date, shape and outcome of the forthcoming general election.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

May 2, 2024


For media enquiries only, please contact the Press Office: