Local elections are becoming a bit like buses. You wait for ages and then they all come together. One of the less obvious consequences of the pandemic is that we have two sets of local elections scheduled for May 2021. Add in elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), a marginal Parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool – a town with an NOC council and all out elections on new boundaries to add to the excitement – and you can see why 6 May is being referred to as our own ‘Super Thursday’.
Let’s set out the local electoral vista. Thirty-nine PCCs, seven combined authority Mayors (including the newly minted West Yorkshire), five single authority Mayors (including the historically rock-solid Labour but now difficult to call Liverpool mayoral contest), 21 county councils, 35 metropolitan borough councils, 28 unitary councils, 60 district councils and over 300 by-elections in other councils. Quite a feast for one night.
One trend that may be missed in the political excitement is the continuing slide towards unitary councils at the expense of the county/district model. Northamptonshire will see elections for two newly created unitary councils and elections have been paused this year in Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire pending the switch to unitary status. As well as reducing the number of councils it also sees the continuation of a decline in the number of elected councillors – a trend which needs to have more scrutiny than is apparent currently.
The concertina of two previous elections in 2016 and 2017 makes predictions problematic, as does holding these elections in the period of semi lock down – a huge headache for polling staff and campaigners alike. More than other elections these will be the ‘postal vote elections’ with the results in many councils effectively decided several weeks before polling day.
Sadly, in too many cases these elections will be seen as judgments on the main political parties as much as a reflection on local service delivery and performance. What makes that even more imprecise than usual is that the main parties performed differently in 2016 and 2017. For Labour 2016 was an ok year with particularly impressive results in the PCC elections in Cheshire and Leicestershire – while 2017 was catastrophic with the party losing its remaining county council strongholds in Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire.
For the Conservatives 2021 is looking quite favourable with the benefit of a vaccine bounce still evident and the ability to improve on a mixed set of results in the 2016 PCC elections and the loss of many district seats to independent/resident groups in 2017.
So, what to watch out for? So far, the PCC elections have never really caught the public imagination, characterised by low turnouts and some fairly dubious expense claims from some of those elected. Based on their current polling the Conservatives should be looking to take Cheshire and Leicestershire from Labour. If they were doing really well then Durham, continuously held by Labour since 1919, could be a possible target.
For Labour the Avon and Somerset PCC could be a close contest partly because there are no other elections in Somerset and they could benefit from their strength in Bristol and second preference support in areas such as Bath.
The PCC role in West Yorkshire has been incorporated into the new Combined Mayor role following on from Greater Manchester and may indicate a future pattern for other combined mayoralties.
In terms of the county councils, the Conservatives are in a formidable position, controlling 19 out of the remaining 21. Nottingham and Derbyshire will be the battlegrounds. To add spice to the contest in Derbyshire Edwina Curry, former MP for South Derbyshire, is challenging Ruth George, the former MP in High Peak, in the Whaley Bridge Division.
Lancashire could be in contention given the slightly mixed reputation of its current Conservative leadership, but the gap of 46-30 may be too high to bridge. Given its really poor performance in 2017 Labour would hope to make significant gains in counties such as Kent, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
Of the unitary councils, a good night will see Labour take control of Northumberland and potentially Swindon. On a bad night it could be in difficulty in Plymouth.
Most of the metropolitan boroughs are likely to remain unchanged, but watch out for Stockport where the Liberal Democrats hope to dislodge Labour as the largest single party. In the North of Greater Manchester, it will be interesting to see if hyper-localist parties such as Radcliffe First can cause problems for Labour in Bury in a similar way that such parties have achieved in neighbouring Bolton. Normally Liverpool would never appear on anyone’s watch list but the fall-out from the continuing controversy over the Liverpool mayoralty may have an impact on the elections for councillors there.
The contest in the remaining districts will see some challenging contests in the North and Midlands, where it will be interesting to see if the local elections follow the pattern of the 2019 General Election in councils such as Burnley Rossendale and Amber Valley. One of the big tests for the Conservatives is whether they can recover ground lost to a host of independent/resident groups at district level especially in Home Counties councils such as Elmbridge, Hart and Mole Valley.
These groups are often the result of unpopular planning decisions which can transcend traditional party loyalties. While there are no council elections in London, it will be interesting to see if the growing opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods has a similar impact on the council by-elections (and potentially Greater London Authority Assembly elections) in Labour boroughs such as Ealing, Hackney and Greenwich.
As for the Green Party, they will hope to build on existing bases of support in Sheffield, Solihull and Sheffield. Perhaps most intriguing will be the contest in Bristol, where a fallout in the local Labour Party could see the Greens take advantage.
The mayoral contests will be covered elsewhere in The MJ. It may however be worth noting the intriguing number of referendums in London on 6 May for the continuation of directly elected Mayors. Tower Hamlets is holding a ballot where the current Mayor is in favour of abolishing his role for a return to a leader and cabinet model. Next door in Newham, the current Mayor is in favour of retaining the role rather than revert to the slightly antiquated Council Committee system. Meanwhile over in troubled Croydon, a petition of 21,000 residents has triggered a referendum to introduce a directly elected Mayor there, but one which won’t be held until October.
I trust that’s all straightforward and clearly based on what’s the best form of governance in each borough rather than faction-fighting in various political parties.
So welcome to Local Elections 2021. An election during a national pandemic with a nation in the throes of major economic and social transition. Good luck for anyone trying to analyse the results with that background.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics