Local Elections 2023: The Preview
It’s that time of year when I have to apologise to our international subscribers, and probably quite a lot of UK ones too, for inflicting on you an extremely detailed preview of England’s local elections in all their byzantine complexity.
They really do matter though. Not just because they decide who will be in charge of local services, but also because they give us real world data on the national political landscape. It’s possible these will be the last locals before the next general election. If Rishi Sunak decides to hold it in spring 2024 it will be on the 2nd May alongside that year’s local contests. My expectation is still that he goes for Autumn, given the temptation to hold on for signs of economic improvement, but May is entirely possible.
These locals will also give us an opportunity to assess the government’s changes to voting rules at scale. For the first time all voters will need to present photo ID, which a chunk of the population – around 2 million – don’t have. There is absolutely no reason for this change, we have no issues with fraud when people vote in person. It’s a complete waste of time and £200 million.
Given this it’s hard to believe the government didn’t do it in the hope it would help them electorally; a straightforward abuse of democratic power. But I don’t think it will. Firstly, because the numbers affected who would actually vote is only a small proportion of the total, and secondly because many of those disenfranchised will be Tory voters. It’s true that young people seem to have been particularly targeted. For instance things like OAP bus passes will be allowed as ID but not a young persons railcard.
On the other hand, people in some of the most Tory parts of the East Mids and East Anglia are the least likely in the country to have passports. Analysis by the academic Ralph Scott shows no difference in likelihood of having ID by Tory or Labour voters. It’s Reform supporters or those who don’t tend to vote at all who are most affected. At the moment we’re all guessing about the impact though, so these elections will be critical in assessing what it might mean for the general election. I certainly expect some angry vox pops with voters who didn’t know anything about it, which could focus attention on the issue.
This is the biggest round of local elections in the four year cycle with over 8,000 seats up for grabs across 230 councils, spread over a wide range of different demographics. They are all in England. Northern Ireland has its local elections a few weeks later but I don’t have the necessary expertise to comment on those.
The last time these seats were fought was May 2019 when both the Tories and Labour were in trouble. Theresa May was reaching the end of a desperate and unsuccessful battle to push her Brexit deal through Parliament. A few weeks later she resigned. Jeremy Corbyn was plumbing new depths of unpopularity. It looked, briefly, like the entire edifice of the two party system might be crumbling. The newly formed Brexit Party was polling 15% and a new centrist party formed by rebel MPs from both Conservatives and Labour, Change UK, was having its moment in the sun, polling 5%.
We’re now back to a more conventional set-up with the Brexit Party’s replacement, Reform, polling around 5% and Change UK a distant memory. This shift in dynamic makes it quite hard to make predictions about what will happen this time. But I’m going to give it a go anyway.
The rest of the post is a preview split by the three main types of council – metropolitan boroughs; district; and unitaries. Then at the end I will set out my predictions for national vote share and how many councils each party will win and lose, with some commentary on the likely reaction in Westminster. Next week I’ll review the results.
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