As we prepare to tuck into our turkeys, sprouts and Christmas puddings, please spare a thought for the thousands of councillors who will be using some of their holiday to apply the finishing touches to their campaign leaflets and door knocking plans. For early in the new year politicos will be back on the doorsteps canvassing for your vote, as on 4 May we will have the first major electoral test of Rishi Sunak’s premiership with council elections taking place across much of England.
When assessing the scope for gains or losses, it’s important to remember the base each of the main parties are starting from. The seats that are up for election were last contested in May 2019, the final local election of Theresa May’s ill-fated three years in Downing Street. Despite the increasingly chaotic travails facing May’s Government over Brexit, the Conservative Party still led the way with 31 per cent of the vote, although they lost over 1,300 councillors and control of 44 local authorities. In his final local election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour registered an unimpressive 28 per cent in a foretaste of the disastrous General Election result which would befall the Party at the end of 2019. In sharp contrast, the Liberal Democrats (then led by Sir Vince Cable) had an excellent night, making a net gain of over 700 seats largely in Remain-voting areas of the Home Counties.
Therefore, with the national polls currently registering a commanding Labour lead of around 20 per cent, Keir Starmer’s Party will be looking to make sizeable gains in May and demonstrate that it is capable of winning in parts of middle England that have eluded the Party since the Blair era. Although the Conservatives are starting from a low base across much of the Home Counties, it appears likely that this will be a damage limitation exercise unless there is a dramatic upturn in their fortunes nationally. The Liberal Democrats will be looking to consolidate their recent gains across much of the Home Counties, but can they improve their standing especially in Parliamentary seats which they have identified as targets against the Conservatives at the next General Election? 2019 was a very good set of local elections for the smaller Parties, in particular the Greens and assorted residents’ groups. Can these smaller Parties, which are often focussed on campaigning against development, continue to make progress against the established national machines?
With five months left before polling day, these questions currently remain unanswered but we are able to identify some of the critical battlegrounds in the Northern Home Counties region that will determine whether each Party has a successful evening:
In Berkshire, the Conservatives are at risk of losing their narrow majorities of five seats in both West Berkshire and the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead. In the former, the Liberal Democrats will be looking to win an outright majority in an area they have had historic election success. In the latter, a Liberal Democrat/Residents Association coalition is the main threat to the Conservatives. The Conservatives will be hopeful of retaining Bracknell Forest which they won with a large majority in 2019. Conversely, the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to build on their recent successes in Wokingham where they now form an administration with the support of Labour and Independent councillors and are targeting the Parliamentary seat.
In Oxfordshire, the Conservatives have had a very difficult recent series of election cycles and are now reduced to controlling one single council in Cherwell. However, even here their majority of two seats is now seriously under threat from a rainbow coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents. The Conservatives will be hoping their strategy of prioritising development in the two towns of Banbury and Bicester whilst protecting the more rural parts of the District will see them emerge victorious but with the Party languishing in the polls this looks an uphill struggle. If the Conservatives were in a stronger national position, they would be confident of retaking South Oxfordshire which they lost in a landslide defeat in 2019 going from 33 to 9 seats. However, subsequent County Council election results have suggested the Liberal Democrat and Green gains of May 2019 which were at the time largely blamed on the emerging Local Plan, may not be a flash in the pan. The Liberal Democrats look in an even stronger position to win re-election in Vale of White Horse where Bethia Thomas has recently replaced Emily Smith as Leader.
Hertfordshire is another County where much of the contest will be between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats have made strong inroads into the Berkhamsted and Tring areas of Dacorum in recent elections and will have hopes of ending the Conservatives’ control of the District. In order to do so, they will need to win several seats in Hemel Hempstead and its outlying areas. A Conservative majority is also under threat in Welwyn Hatfield which has seen one of the longest-running Local Plans in the country. In this case, only a third of seats are up for election however the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition groups will be hopeful of depriving the Conservative administration of outright control. In the recent past, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have not agreed to form a coalition, however different Group leaders may change this situation in the event that the Conservatives incur losses. The Conservatives would appear to be on stronger ground in Hertsmere and East Hertfordshire, although the post-Corbyn Labour Party has scope to gain territory in the former now that anti-Semitism is less of an issue for the Party.
In Central Bedfordshire, the Conservatives will be hopeful of holding on under new boundaries. Their main threat appears to come from Independents rather than the established Parties.
The Conservatives do have some opportunities to make progress in Uttlesford where the Residents for Uttlesford group swept to power in May 2019 but have faced subsequent difficulties including being stripped of their planning powers. In contrast, Labour will be looking to make substantial gains in Thurrock following the Conservative-controlled Council’s well-documented financial problems. Staying in Essex, the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to retain control of Chelmsford which was one of their most impressive gains of 2019 against the Conservatives.
As the new year approaches, in many local authorities across the Northern Home Counties it feels like all’s to play for in May.