The 2018 Local Election Briefing: What should we expect?

April 17, 2018

Joseph Bevan looks at some of the key races as Labour battle it out with the Conservatives for control over England's councils. 


On 3rd May 2018, voters in England will go to the polls to elect councillors to 151 local authorities, as well as six directly elected mayors. The elections will be the first to be fought since Theresa May’s failed attempt to increase the Conservative Party’s overall majority at the 2017 snap general parliamentary election. This will be the fourth set of national elections fought by Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and the third for Theresa May as leader of the Conservatives; it will also be the third battle between May and Corbyn. For the Liberal Democrats, this will be Vince Cable’s first set of elections as leader and for UKIP, who knows who will be leading the party by polling day. In terms of who is defending what, the Labour Party is defending 2,048 seats and 78 councils whilst the Conservatives are defending 1,302 seats and 39 councils. More than half of Labour’s defence in terms of seats are in the 32 London borough councils. For the first time with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the widespread expectation is that the Labour Party will perform as an opposition should at mid-term elections and make a net gain of seats. Some have suggested that a strong performance from the Labour Party will quell dissent within the Conservative Party as the party’s rebels will be focused by the possibility of triggering another general election that would see their party lose power.  

Barring councils which have had boundary changes such as Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Kingston-upon-Hull, most of the wards up for election were last fought in 2014 and were held on the same day as the elections to the European Parliament. In the six polls before the 2014 elections, the Labour Party were enjoying a 2.5-point advantage; polling an average of 35.3 percent to the Conservatives’ 32.5 percent. The United Kingdom Independence Party were polling 14.2 percent whilst the Liberal Democrats were trailing in fourth place at 9.3 percent. This is a stark difference to the current climate, where Labour and the Conservatives are both polling around the 40 percent mark, whilst the Liberal Democrats are languishing around 7 percent and UKIP’s support has evaporated. 

In London’s borough councils, the Labour Party is widely expected to do well and although it could be expectation management, senior Conservatives are braced for heavy losses. In 2014, Labour added 185 seats to its London haul, picked up Croydon and Hammersmith and Fulham from the Conservatives, gained majorities in both Merton and Redbridge as well as regaining Harrow which had been plunged into no overall control after a row in 2013. With control over 20 councils, Labour achieved its best result since Harold Wilson led the party to control in 21 of the boroughs in 1971. The Conservatives, on the other hand, lost control over two of their councils and held onto just 612 councillors, their lowest total since 1998. In the London wide popular vote, Labour’s share of the vote improved by eight-points to 43 percent with a 13.1-point lead over the Conservatives who plunged to 29.9 percent; their worst ever London local election result. The Liberal Democrat vote more than halved and Nick Clegg’s party held onto one of its two councils, losing Kingston-upon-Thames to the Conservatives but gaining a couple of seats in their only hold in Sutton. 

Looking to 3rd May, the Labour Party definitely looks to be in a position of strength in the capital. Since 2014, the Labour Party has bucked the national trend in the capital at the 2015 general election, won the London mayoralty in 2016 and polled an impressive 54.6 percent of the vote at the 2017 general election. Since 2014, YouGov and Queen Mary University have produced two Local Election voting intention polls for London, one in September 2017 and the other in February 2018. The most recent of the two had the Labour Party in a commanding position, polling 54 percent to the Conservatives’ 28. Were Labour to poll this well, it would be their best local elections result in the capital, ever. On paper, the easiest pick up for the Labour Party should be Barnet. The council was narrowly won by the Conservatives in 2014 but was left in no overall control in March after a resignation. The Labour Party would need to pick up just two seats for an overall majority but the current row within the party surrounding anti-Semitism could hamper their chances with areas such as Golders Green, Finchley and Mill Hill having high Jewish populations. 


The flagship Conservative councils of Wandsworth and Westminster are also looking vulnerable to a Labour challenge and if the party is having an extremely good night, it will be in contention to snatch Hillingdon from the Conservatives for the first time in over 20 years. Elsewhere the Liberal Democrats are likely to be in play in Kingston-upon-Thames, where they need six seats to regain an overall majority. In Richmond-upon-Thames, the location of Sarah Olney’s famous by-election victory back in 2016 in Richmond Park, a deal is in place between Vince Cable’s party and the local greens to try and steel the council from Conservative hands. In Kensington and Chelsea, the scene of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire last June, a seemingly safe Conservative majority could be under threat. Labour gained the Kensington constituency by a whisker in a shock result at last June’s parliamentary election and the council has been heavily criticised in the aftermath of Grenfell. Whilst Labour have virtually no chance of gaining control, they do have a slim chance of removing the Conservative overall majority in conjunction with a coalition of independents and the Liberal Democrats. In the absolute worst-case scenario for the Conservatives, they could be left with just two of London’s 32 borough councils; Bexley and Bromley. Four out of the five local authority mayors that are up for election are also in London and all are, pending any major changes, expected to be won by Labour. 

In the rest of the country, the Labour Party will also be looking to make progress. A failure to do so will indicate that the party is not on track to win an overall majority at the next parliamentary election, whenever that may be. No doubt, Jeremy Corbyn’s launch of Labour’s local campaign in Trafford is indicative of this desire to do well nationally as well as in the capital. Trafford is the only Conservative run council in the Greater Manchester area and after 14 years of Tory control, it would be a big prize for Labour to pick up. The Conservatives currently hold 33 of the 63 seats whilst Labour holds 26 and the Liberal Democrats three. The council will have one third of its councillors up for election, 10 Conservatives, 9 Labour and one Liberal Democrat, as well as one vacant seat. For control, the Labour Party would have to take an additional six seats, a stretch but not impossible considering that in the Stretford and Urmston parliamentary constituency, Labour’s Kate Green increased her vote by 13.7 points last June and three of the Conservative defences are within in this constituency. Aside from this, at last year’s mayoral election, Andy Burnham won many of the wealthier wards and once again, this will give Labour a boost. 

In Plymouth, the Labour Party is also hoping to take control, having performed incredibly well in the Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency last June. The Labour Party held an overall majority in Plymouth from 2012 to 2015 but losses of seats during the 2014, 2015 and 2016 elections led to the Conservatives becoming the largest single party and in 2017, three UKIP councillors defected to them and handed them overall control. If the Labour Party can win back the three wards that it lost to UKIP in 2014, it will regain overall control. Portsmouth will also be interesting; the council has been a Conservative- Liberal battle for many years but Portsmouth North is a Conservative-Labour battle at Westminster and the Labour Party gained Portsmouth South for the first time in history in 2017. Although the Conservatives are the largest single party, UKIP will be defending the most seats on the night at six with the Conservatives defending five and the Liberal Democrats three. Labour currently have no seats but will certainly be looking to make gains considering their 2017 performance. 

On the Thames Estuary, there are handful of unique battles occurring with the collapse of UKIP offering some potential hope for the Conservatives. One such battle is Thurrock. In 2012, the Labour Party gained overall control, before losing their majority in 2014. In 2016, Labour lost their status as the largest party with UKIP and the Conservatives tied with 17 seats each. The UKIP group defected in January 2018 to form the Thurrock Independents. At the South Ockendon by election back in March, the Conservatives and Labour tied with 36.1 percent of the vote each, with the Conservatives gaining the seat based on a coin toss. This year, Labour will be defending the most seats with six, the Conservatives five and the Thurrock Independents five. Depending on where the UKIP vote goes will depend on what happens. It is unlikely that any party will win an overall majority but a good performance from Labour could turn them into the largest single party and likewise, the Conservatives could bolster their position to within two or three seats of control. At Westminster level, Thurrock is the most marginal seat in Essex and the 26th most marginal seat in the country with a Conservative majority of just 345. In 2017, Thurrock was also UKIP’s best performance nationwide with 20.1 percent of the vote, it will be interesting to see whether this support transfers to the Thurrock Independents at a local level or returns to Labour and the Conservatives. A typical eastern Conservative-Labour marginal for many years and now Labour’s ninth target for the next election, anything other than a strong performance here will be bad news for Jeremy Corbyn. 

Just along the coast, in Southend-on-Sea, a coalition of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and independents took control in 2014 but in 2016, the Conservatives were able to continue as a minority administration. Prior to the election, the council is in Conservative hands and they will be defending four of the seats, UKIP five, Independents four, Labour three and the Liberal Democrats one. Once again, it will be interesting to see what happens to the UKIP seats and those of the independents. At the general in 2017, both constituencies in Southend saw large increases in the Labour vote with Rochford and Southend East becoming the second most marginal seat in Essex and Labour’s 89th target seat at the next election. If Labour do well here, they are well on track for an overall majority at the next general election. 

Across the country in Eastleigh, the Liberal Democrats should hold their once solid bastion of Eastleigh. The Liberal Democrats currently holds 38 of the council’s 44 seats with the other six in the hands of the Conservatives. All the council’s seats are up for election in May and Labour may be hoping to improve their position in the borough having recorded their best result since 2005 in the Eastleigh constituency last June. Of course, the Conservatives have held the constituency since the 2015 Liberal Democrat collapse and Mims Davies increased his majority in 2017. In Cumbria, the Liberal Democrats will also be on the defensive in South Lakeland. The council has all its seats up for election and the Liberal Democrats currently hold control. The biggest worry for the Liberal Democrats will be that a large portion of the council is within the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency where 2017 saw the Conservatives came within 777 votes of unseating the party’s leader, Tim Farron. They will be hoping to hold their ground but with Tim Farron’s closely run contest in 2017 fresh in their mind, the Liberal Democrats may be a little bit nervous. The Watford mayoralty will be more difficult for the Liberal Democrats as that popular incumbent, Baroness Dorothy Thornhill, is standing down. The party should hold the mayoralty, but it depends how far the ‘London effect’ goes for Labour and how strong the Liberal Democrat vote is without Baroness Thornhill on the ballot. Watford borough council also has one third of its seats up for election. The Liberal Democrats currently hold 25 seats, with Labour on 11. It would not be possible for Labour to become the largest party or win an overall majority, but it will be interesting to see whether the Tories can gain some representation in a bizarre area where they hold the Westminster constituency but currently have no councillors.  

Stockport will be another of the more interesting contests of the night. It is currently in no overall control with a Labour minority administration. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats could take control or, the Conservatives could become the largest party. Given Labour’s relative under-performance last June in two out of the four constituencies that the council covers, Cheadle and Hazel Grove, they may not make big progress here. Down the road in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the council was narrowly held by the Labour Party in 2014 but they have since lost their overall majority. The whole council is up, so on a good night they should take it back. Considering the overwhelming vote to leave the European Union here and the fact that the Conservatives made progress in all three constituencies within the council area, Labour may well under-perform here. It certainly isn’t beyond the realms of reality that the Conservatives could pip them to become the largest single party. 

One of the bigger prizes of the night will come in Sheffield; where, barring a huge disaster, Labour’s Dan Jarvis will be elected as the city region’s new metro-mayor. There has been a dispute over the removal of trees however, so there may be some impact ‘down ballot’ where Labour gets punished in the areas affected such as Gleadless Valley ward where protesters were arrested earlier in the year. Labour managed a clean sweep of Sheffield’s parliamentary constituencies last year, though; taking out former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, in Sheffield Hallam. Wards that make up the Hallam constituency are probably worth watching, to see if the situation with Jared O’Mara, currently suspended from the Labour Party, has had any effect.

Worcester city council would also be a nice pick up for the Labour Party, but a double-digit swing is required to take the two additional seats required for control. In 2016, a shock Green gain allowed Labour to take overall control as a minority administration and in 2017, Labour came close to unseating the incumbent Conservative, Robin Walker. The seat is now Labour’s 44th target, if it takes control of the council it implies that the party is on course to at least become the largest single party in the House of Commons. An hour up the road is Nuneaton and Bedworth, where Labour is defending 13 out of 17 seats up for election; the party currently holds a total of 24 seats on the council. Five of the wards that the Labour Party are defending are in the former mining town of Bedworth, itself in the North Warwickshire constituency. In the not so distant past, North Warwickshire was a Conservative-Labour marginal with the Conservatives’ Dan Byles winning by just 54 votes in 2010. In 2017, Conservative MP Craig Tracey increased his majority to 8,510 over Labour’s Julie Jackson. The Conservatives will almost certainly be looking to gain seats in this area; at last year’s county council elections, the Conservatives almost managed the clean sweep in Bedworth, with only Bedworth Central escaping their grasp. In Nuneaton, another typical Conservative-Labour midland marginal constituency at Westminster level, currently held by Conservative MP Marcus Jones, the Conservatives will also be aiming to gain back some of their 2014 losses. Back in June 2017, there was a tiny swing from Conservative to Labour after the shock Conservative hold of the constituency in 2015. The Conservatives are unlikely to make big inroads in Nuneaton but could snatch a couple of wards from Labour as a result of the UKIP collapse and possibly one ward from the Greens. 

It will be interesting to see how the Labour Party performs in the West Midlands, an area which contains many typical Conservative-Labour battleground parliamentary constituencies. At the 2017 general election, there was a 1.2 percent swing from Conservative to Labour in the region but, it was the only region in which the Labour Party suffered a net loss. If Labour has any hope of a parliamentary majority, it must perform strongly here at the next general election and recover some of its losses from 2010. This is not as easy as it sounds with the region overwhelmingly voting to leave the European Union by a margin of 59.3 to 40.7 percent. With Labour’s shift in stance towards a customs union with the EU, the party may feel some backlash. 

The Liberal Democrats should be looking to make progress in the larger cities that voted to remain in the European Union, barring London where Labour will steel their thunder. If they fail to make progress in remain areas, it is indicative of the fact that the party is a largely dead electoral force for the foreseeable future. In Winchester, for example, the remain vote was 58.9 percent. The council is currently in Conservative hands and with one third of the seats up for election, they will need an additional five for overall control. This is probably not outside of the realms of possibility for the Liberal Democrats and last June, Winchester parliamentary constituency saw a swing of 6.5 percent from Conservative to Liberal Democrat. 

The Labour Party is expected to do well on 3rd May but there are a few caveats to bear in mind before getting too carried away. The first is that the last time these councils were fought, in 2014, the Labour Party was polling slightly ahead of the Conservatives. As a result of the ‘right vote’ being split by UKIP, Labour had a very good night under Ed Miliband, taking many additional councillors and control of several additional councils. The two parties are now polling level, albeit at a much higher level. There is therefore, a very slight national swing from Labour TO the Conservatives. Without considering any of the detail of what is being fought, it would be logical to assume that the Labour Party would actually suffer a small number of losses. However, once we consider the forecast of how well Labour are likely to perform in London’s boroughs, it would be realistic to assume that as the party sweeps the capital, it will offset losses in the midlands and the north. 

Most of the 2013-2016 period was marked by a strong UKIP performance and as a result, recent elections have focused on where the UKIP voters have moved to as it unwinds. In the 2017 local elections, this movement seemed to be in the direction of the Conservatives and this created the false impression that in seats where the Labour majority was smaller than the UKIP vote, the Conservatives would be able to hoover up the spare UKIP votes and make a gain. This didn’t turn out to be the case at the general election but it will be interesting to see whether this remains the case at a local level as was the case in 2017 

Aside from this, much of what is being fought is in Labour’s own backyard, areas of traditional strength for the party. Labour will hold onto councils in large metropolitan areas such as Birmingham, Sunderland, Coventry and Newcastle. London has essentially become another country at a Westminster level in recent elections, consistently returning a battalion of Labour MPs. If Labour does do as well as expected there, that’s great for the party but that shouldn’t be heavily read into. Likewise, a less than terrible performance for the Conservatives should also not be too heavily analysed. 2014 was an abysmal year for London’s Tories, losing less seats than expected will still be a truly awful result for the party. 

Finally, although local elections give us an idea of the political temperature, they do not tell us a great deal about what will happen at the next general election. Turnout will almost certainly be lower than at a general election, it usually is around 40 percent, compared to 68 percent at the most recent general. In 2012, Ed Miliband absolutely cleaned up, adding over 800 councillors and 32 councils to Labour’s haul. The party suffered a crushing defeat three years later at the general. In 2017, the Conservatives really did manage a landslide on 4th May with the UKIP collapse allowing them to trounce a weak and divided Labour Party. Just FOUR WEEKS later, the Labour Party surged to its highest vote share since 2001 and successfully gained 30 seats, denying the Conservatives an overall majority in the House of Commons. Local elections are useful about giving us an idea of where the national picture stands, and it will be interesting to see the National Equivalent Vote. But, voters vote based on different issues on a lower turnout than at general elections so treat the results with caution as there is less correlation than some would imagine. 

The coverage over the elections is likely to focus on the Conservative and Labour parties. Labour are almost certain to do well in London, they will post a decent win in the Sheffield mayoral contest and may well win control of councils such as Trafford, Worcester and Plymouth. There is a major danger for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in that expectations could get out of control. In 2016, triple figure losses were expected for the Labour Party, when the final figure ended up at 18 and no councils, team-Corbyn were able to claim victory. This time round, quite the opposite is happening. Many are expecting the Labour Party to do well but in truth, although the party is polling considerably better than in 2014, so are the Conservatives. As a result, there may be a small swing from Labour to the Conservatives and this could put an end to the party making big gains outside of the capital. For the Conservatives, the expectations are through the floor. Virtually nobody is expecting the party to end the night having made net gains and losses of up to 100 seats are expected. Anything better than this will allow the Conservatives to play down the results and will be good news for Theresa May who find it easier to survive as party leader and Prime Minister for the time being. All in all, quite a lot is at stake in 2018. For Corbyn, its make or break, Labour must make big gains in order to show to his doubters that he is heading for number 10. The Conservatives main objective must be damage limitation and the party must try to successfully hold back the Labour challenge. With two weeks to go and the opinion polls showing a tie between the Conservative and Labour parties, there is still a lot to play for with yet another uncertain result on the horizon.

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