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Labour can take some Tory citadels this week – but don’t expect a clear-cut UK result | Labour

Labour voting

Labour heads into this week’s local elections with a spring in its step. The government is in the doldrums, the prime minister is scandal-tainted and unpopular, and the opposition is preferred on nearly all the major issues of the day. Labour has led the opinion polls for months, and Keir Starmer has opened up a lead over the diminished and beleaguered Boris Johnson, becoming the first Labour leader in a decade to hold such an advantage over his Conservative opponent. This sounds like a political environment in which Labour should prosper at the polls.

Not so fast. The bulk of this year’s English contests are being fought on Labour’s strongest terrain – London and other big cities – meaning more seats to defend and fewer opportunities for gains. Labour was also riding high when these seats were last contested. The 2018 contest, fought in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 campaign surge, was Labour’s strongest local election showing in the last decade.

Starting from a high baseline on home turf means even a strong vote share may return a mediocre haul of seats won and councils taken over. Labour’s rebound in the polls may therefore have raised expectations the party will struggle to meet. A tough map makes this a difficult contest for Labour to win decisively.

Even if Labour struggles to advance on a broad front, it could compensate with symbolic victories in high-profile Conservative strongholds. Several true-blue London boroughs are now vulnerable including Barnet, Westminster and particularly Wandsworth. The latter is an inner London borough that has been controlled by the Conservatives for more than 40 years, and run for 19 of them as a laboratory of Thatcherism by Sir Edward Lister, until recently Boris Johnson’s chief of staff. Wandsworth matters to the Conservatives. Holding it shored up a beleaguered Theresa May in 2018; losing it now would be a body blow for her successor.

Labour voting
Starting from a high baseline may mean that even a strong vote share for Labour could return a mediocre haul of seats won. Photograph: Cameron Smith/Getty Images

While the blue London boroughs offer symbolic resonance, the contests of substance will be fought outside the capital. Labour will be looking for signs of recovery in Brexit-voting “red wall” areas such as Kirklees, Derby and Newcastle-under-Lyme that deserted the party in 2019. Meanwhile, contests in perennial swing areas such as Milton Keynes, Crawley and Southampton will also be closely watched for signs of a shift in the balance of power.

The problem for Labour is that matching its high-water mark of four years ago risks looking like failure. The Conservatives, by contrast, could fall back on their strong 2021 result yet still improve on a weaker 2018 performance. The outcome could be hard to interpret, and a messy outcome is better for the Conservatives, relieving pressure on a beleaguered prime minister while denying Starmer the clear-cut story of progress he needs to convince sceptics.

The Liberal Democrats will also hope that advances this week will consolidate their status as credible challengers to the Tories in their own electoral battleground: the middle class, remain-leaning “blue wall” seats of southern England.

They made gains in such areas in 2019 and 2021 and will hope to do so again. While there are few opportunities for the Lib Dems to capture councils outright, they will hope to deprive the Conservatives of control in Huntingdonshire and West Oxfordshire – areas once represented in parliament by John Major and David Cameron. Strong showings in the new unitary authorities of Somerset and Westmorland and Furness would provide evidence of recovery in traditional Lib Dem heartlands.

The Greens will also be looking to build on record success in the last two local election cycles with further gains in places such as Sheffield, Exeter and Wirral where they are already an established presence.

The political context is rather different in Wales and Scotland, where elections for all the local councils also take place this week. The Conservatives had a much stronger showing in 2017, when Welsh local elections last took place, so Labour should find it easier to make gains in general election target areas such as Wrexham and Flintshire.

Scotland’s local elections also last took place in 2017, but Scottish local government uses a proportional electoral system, and its SNP-dominated political environment is largely decoupled from developments elsewhere. The Scottish Conservative brand has fallen far since these councils were last contested by Ruth Davidson in 2017. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar will hope that a rebound in votes and seats will help re-establish his party as the main challenger to the SNP going into the next general election.

While there is much for the governing parties to watch in this wave of local contests, the most politically consequential elections will be in Northern Ireland, where voters will elect members for a new devolved assembly. Polling points to a seismic shift, with Sinn Féin overtaking its unionist rivals to become the largest party in the assembly for the first time. With the DUP leadership currently refusing to commit to serving under a Sinn Féin first minister, and a long-running dispute over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol still unresolved, storm clouds are gathering over the province once again.

Whatever this week’s local elections may signal for the future, a new Northern Ireland crisis could swiftly shift political attention back to the unhealed wounds of the past.

Robert Ford is professor of political science, University of Manchester, and author of The British General Election of 2019