English Local Elections: A Test for Rivals Johnson and Starmer

Published on 2 May 2021 at 12:54

This week, the United Kingdom will go to the polls for a raft of elections. In Scotland, the Holyrood elections are taking place to elect 129 MSPs to the Scottish National Parliament. In Wales, the Senedd elections are taking place with voters in Wales tasked with electing 60 members to the Welsh legislature. In England, the main focus will be on the several council elections taking place, as well as the London Mayoral and Assembly elections. This article will focus on the local elections in England, which will be the first election since the 2019 General Election in which the Conservative Party won a clear majority.


Typically, many pundits may not pay close attention to the English council elections, but this year they are far more significant. Firstly, it will be a nationwide election taking place during a global pandemic, which in itself draws more attention to the elections. Additionally, it will be Keir Starmer’s first major test as leader of the Labour Party.


This will be Starmer’s first election and all eyes will be on northern areas to see if Starmer will recover any of the traditional Labour vote that the Conservatives won in 2019. Council areas in the north, as well as a by-election in Hartlepool will be closely watched by Starmer. If he fails to gain back votes lost to the Tories, or loses more ground to them, trouble may lie ahead for Starmer as he has been struggling in recent polls.


It must be prefaced that it is challenging to predict which way the results will go due to the localised nature of the elections. One must also remember that not every county/district council will be electing representatives this week. However, we can use Westminster Voting Intention polls to give us a solid idea of where the parties stand going into the elections.


In the majority of polls published by YouGov, NewStatesman and others, Labour is consistently behind the Conservatives, and by quite a large margin. Most polls have placed Labour in the mid 30% range, usually coming in at 33-34%. However, this number dropped to 29% in a YouGov poll in early April. On the other hand, the Tories are sitting in the 40% bracket, ranging in polls from 41-43%.


This gives the Conservatives a slightly smaller lead, on average, to the one they had over Labour in the 2019 General Election, where the Tories finished 11.5 percentage points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.  There have been some polling companies, such as Survation, who have Labour within one point of the Conservative party in Westminster voting intention polls. Unfortunately for Keir Starmer, this appears to be an outlier.


While we cannot always rely on polls to make accurate predictions, the trends are showing that it will be a disappointing election for Labour in England. Despite the recent controversy Boris Johnson’s shocking comments about ‘letting bodies pile up high’ when opposing another lockdown in the British media, voters do not seem to believe in what Starmer and Labour are offering in its current form.


One explanation for the Conservative’s holding a firm lead in polls could be attributed to a ‘vaccine-boost’ of sorts. Boris Johnson’s government has rolled out an extremely effective and efficient vaccination system, with millions of the adult population having received at least one dose. When we pair this with the fact that Britain is easing restrictions and has opened large parts of the economy as many European countries are renewing restrictions and lockdowns, it is no surprise that Johnson’s party is polling at high levels.


On top of this, Starmer has been unable to criticise the government’s vaccine strategy and has voted with the government on certain votes related to Covid-19. At times it appears that Starmer isn’t even in opposition and is evidently trying to appeal to moderate Tory voters as Tony Blair did in the past, but with the Conservative government overseeing a rapid vaccination programme as other countries miss targets, it is going to be extremely difficult for Labour to win the moderate vote. Starmer will need to ensure that his party wins the support of democratic socialists, young and old, who were staunch supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. If Starmer fails to win this vote then Labour, who is self-described as a democratic socialist party, will find itself in a dire position.


After the ‘Red Wall’ in Northern England fell to the Tories in the last election, it is hard to see where Keir Starmer’s Labour core support will come from in the upcoming elections. Starmer will need the support of middle-class urban voters, which Labour successfully captured in London in the General Election. However, Labour needs this vote to translate to smaller towns and villages across England, which looks unlikely to materialise at this point.


Outside of the big two parties, the Greens and Liberal Democrats have been making moderate gains in polls. In recent council by-elections, the Green Party pulled off many shock victories by winning traditional Labour seats in many areas across the country. The Greens will be hoping to hold these seats and take more council seats across the country, appealing to typical Labour voters who may be unsatisfied with Keir Starmer’s leadership of the party.


On a national level they have been polling in the 5-8% range, as are the Liberal Democrats. It is hard to estimate how the Lib Dems will perform on a local level considering their 2019 campaign was based around stopping Brexit. Brexit has now come to pass and the UK is no longer a member of the European Union, which the Lib Dems cannot change at this stage. However, we must remember that local politics is often very different to national politics; in saying this, the Lib Dems seem to be struggling to find their identity and many may see the party as not offering anything substantially different to the other parties.


These elections in England, along with the national elections in Wales and Scotland, will provide some much needed relief for elections nerds. We will get a clear indication from the results in England whether the Conservatives have kept the support of working class, traditional Labour areas, over the past year and a half. These areas are what hold the keys to controlling the balance of power both locally and nationally in England and we must pay close attention to whether the shift to the right of the political spectrum will continue among voters in these constituencies.

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