Of the more than 200 local authorities declaring election results tomorrow, some will fly under the radar to all but that council’s residents, politicians and assorted political anoraks.
Others, like Bracknell Forest, will quickly be seized on by spinners on all sides, desperate to demonstrate how the council’s result proves their narrative of the elections overall. In Bracknell Forest’s case, the local elections will be seen – whatever the result – as a testing ground for the potential of a ‘progressive alliance’ to disrupt Conservative majorities at both local and national level.
Though progressive alliances are not necessarily new, since the 2016 Brexit vote the idea that anti-Conservative parties should agree to not get in each other’s ways when taking on the Conservatives has been pushed by think-tanks and various activists. While for obvious reasons the Westminster versions of most parties are against the idea, at a local level the 2023 elections have seen some experiments with the idea.
In Bracknell Forest, upon the release of the council’s Statement of Persons Nominated, it became clear that something was afoot locally. In only three of the council’s 15 wards are candidates from more than one progressive party standing against the Conservatives – with the Green Party fielding candidates to oppose Labour in Easthampstead & Wildridings and in Whitegrove, and a single Liberal Democrat standing against Green candidates in Winkfield and Warfield East.
Nowhere in Bracknell Forest are Labour and the Liberal Democrats both standing candidates, with furious denials of a stitch-up from the national parties doing little to dispel ideas that an electoral pact was agreed locally.
Election-watchers across the country will be keenly observing whether the informal pacts have an effect, or whether voters are turned off voting for the progressive parties by having their electoral choice reduced.
There’s certainly scope for the opposition to gain ground. While the Conservatives have held Bracknell Forest uninterrupted since it became a unitary authority in 1997, with leader Cllr Paul Bettison at the helm throughout most of this period, it wouldn’t require an enormous swing for the party’s significant majority to be reduced. Six of the council’s 15 wards could reasonably be described as ‘marginal’ in 2019, and a by-election in Old Bracknell in 2021 saw a Labour gain on 16-point swing.
Nonetheless, a Conservative loss of Bracknell Forest is only likely to happen in the event of electoral Armageddon for the party nationwide – not an unthinkable scenario, but neither one that even the most ardent progressive alliance supporter should assume is on the cards.
For where gains and swings are likely to be observed, Labour has chosen to run most of its candidates in the urban wards of Bracknell itself – following up the party’s by-election win in Old Bracknell and completing a sweep in the marginal Priestwood & Garth ward will both be top priorities.
The Liberal Democrats by contrast are focussing most candidates in Crowthorne and parts of Ascot, with Central Sandhurst likewise a priority for the party here.
As with many authorities in the 2023 elections, the headline results may not be dramatic, but it’s under the hood that the real interest lies, with several councils seeing massive Conservative majorities chipped away and attempts at re-imagining how British politics works being tested for all to observe.
4th May 2023