“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”
Spring has well and truly sprung. The trees are full of the new season’s blossom. The roads are full of the last season’s potholes. And the bins are full of leaflets, straining the backs of the binmen who are the first step in turning this season’s election publicity into next season’s recycled paper.
A huge amount of what you see in the picture above has been influenced by the local council. The lamppost in the background at the right, partly hidden behind a tree, was designed to look good given its location in a town centre. The lamppost in the foreground has a speed limit sign attached to it; its counterpart on the other side on the post reads “20”, instructing drivers to keep their speed down through a residential area — the council signed that off. The bookmakers on the left edge of the picture went through the council planning process when it opened, many years ago. The health centre and library is a new building which opened just over two months ago, built, paid for and operated out of my council tax. If an election leaflet I’ve received is anything to go by, it’s already Bolton’s busiest branch library. And the unfixed potholes in the road are an illustration of the parlous state of council finances.
It’s the council who get to have the final say on important matters like how often the bins are emptied, how often the roads are resurfaced, and how much their employees get paid for doing that. It’s the council who get to have the final say on important matters like where shops can be opened, how our libraries are run, where our children’s schools are located, where new housing is to be built, whether new housing is to be built. It’s the council that registers our hatchings, matchings and dispatchings, and that supports its more vulnerable residents in between through one of the largest parts of the local government budget — social services. To do all this our 400 or so local councils, between them, employ around two million people — a figure that has reduced by a third since 2010 as central government, who stump up the bill for much of this, have slowly turned the financial thumbscrews.
In the UK, we ensure that the public have oversight of all this through regular local government elections. Every year, on the first Thursday in May, new councillors are elected while old councillors retire. In 2022 the UK’s local elections will most likely be the biggest electoral event of the year. Let’s have a look at what we might expect from them.
Local elections relate to local issues, but they take place against the backdrop of the national political scene. A rising tide lifts all boats, whereas a falling tide can leave some vessels high and dry. Many councillors find that their jobs are won and lost based on what’s happening outside their district.
Like most local election years in the UK (with the exception of 2021), there is patchy coverage this year with some districts going to the polls while others don’t. On the bill for May 2022 we have all the councillors up for election in Scotland, Wales and Greater London, together with elections for the whole of North Yorkshire and Somerset county councils, and for two brand-new councils in Cumbria. There is a general election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the rest of England only those councils in England which return a third or a half of their councillors at each election will be going to the polls; these are generally the most urban districts and include nearly of all of England’s metropolitan areas. If you live in rural England, chances are that you’ll be sitting this year’s elections out.
This urban bias translates into a Labour-voting bias. Most of the seats up this year were last contested in 2018, and the Local Elections Archive Project database shows that that year (in England only) 41.2% of the votes were cast for Labour, 31.8% for the Conservatives, 14.0% for the Liberal Democrats, 6.7% for the Green Party, 2.1% for independent candidates, 1.3% for UKIP and the remaining 2.9% for localists and other parties. In terms of council seats, Labour won 2,359, the Conservatives 1,338, the Liberal Democrats 540, the Greens 39, independents 61, UKIP 3 and localists and the rest won 84.
To allow consistent comparisons to be made across local elections from year to year, the BBC make an estimate of how the vote would have gone across the whole country based on vote changes in a representative sample of wards. Their Projected National Share for the 2018 local elections put the Conservatives and Labour level on 35% each and the Lib Dems on 16%. We can see from the differences between these and the figures above that the wards holding elections tend to be stronger for Labour, and weaker for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, than the GB average.
There have been only two sets of local elections since, as a result of the COVID-enforced cancellation of the 2020 polls. The May 2019 elections came at a time of great weakness for both the Conservative and Labour parties at the height of the Brexit debates, and the BBC’s projected shares put the Conservatives and Labour on just 28% each with the Lib Dems on 19%. By contrast, the May 2021 polls came with the Conservatives riding high in the national polls on the back of the COVID vaccination programme, and the local elections reflected this; the projected shares came out at 36% for the Conservatives, 29% for Labour and 17% for the Liberal Democrats. Much has happened since May 2021, and the national polling is showing a swing to the Labour party who have had a consistent opinion poll lead for some months.
The timeline means that it may be difficult for the Labour party to turn that lead into significant gains this time. The Labour party are defending over half of the seats up for election this year, and a large proportion of this set of elections is Greater London where Labour performed particularly well at the last local elections in 2018. Additionally, the big Conservative lead in the 2021 local elections turned into major gains in the rotational councils, and with those seats now in the bank for the Conservatives until 2024 the opposition parties will have to do just as well, in the other direction, to make significant headway.
You’ll see this theme developing in the detailed previews which now follow. Links given are to results from the Local Elections Archive Project, while the maps are from 2018 or (if different) the year when these seats were last contested. Without further ado, let’s get out into the country:
Let’s start our tour of the country with what are probably going to be the first results to come in. The fast-counting Sunderland council has seen huge Labour losses in 2019 and 2021, and we are now at the point where the Labour majority is in danger. Following a by-election gain by Labour in March, the council has 43 Labour councillors, 19 Conservatives, 12 Lib Dems, and one independent who was elected as UKIP. A repeat of the 2021 results would see Labour lose five seats Doxford and Hendon wards to the Lib Dems, and Ryhope, St Anne’s and Washington South wards to the Conservatives: that would give 38 Labour seats and a majority of one. If this comes to pass then control of the council may well be up in the air for some time, because the election in Copt Hill, a Labour-held ward which covers the eastern part of Houghton-le-Spring and some associated villages, has had to be postponed after the UKIP candidate died during the campaign. Andrew’s Previews will cover this in detail at a later date.
The other North East council to watch is Hartlepool, whose entire representation was up in 2021: the parliamentary seat was a historic Conservative by-election gain, while the party may also be ruing its decision not to stand more candidates in the simultaneous Hartlepool council election. The whole council was up for election last year on new ward boundaries, but the Conservative dominance in the ward map only netted them 13 seats out of 36 because they only stood 13 candidates: there are 12 independent and/or localist councillors and 11 Labour members, giving a very balanced council. There is little scope for Labour gains in Hartlepool because the party are defending seven of the 13 seats up for election this year; holding what they have got will be a decent result.
It probably doesn’t help that Hartlepool Labour have had to spend a lot of money over the last year defending an election petition against the 2021 result in Fens and Greatham (GREE-tham) ward, where Labour’s Jennifer Elliott finished in third place in 2021 and hence is up for re-election this year. Elliott won her seat by a margin of ten votes over outgoing Independent Union councillor Bob Buchan, who lost his seat. The Labour campaign had wrongly claimed that Buchan had voted in favour of a controversial planning application in the ward; in fact he was ill on the day of the vote in question and had not attended the meeting. Buchan took Elliott to the Election Court, which agreed that this was a false statement of fact but did not overturn the result, deciding that the false statement related to Buchan’s political conduct rather than his personal character. Round 3 of Elliott v Buchan will take place this May at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom: Elliott is seeking re-election for Labour in Fens and Greatham and she is opposed only by Buchan, who this time has the Conservative nomination.
The Labour mayor of North Tyneside is not due for re-election until 2024 and the Labour majorities in the other Tyne and Wear councils are impregnable. There have, however, been some ructions within the ruling Labour group in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the outgoing council leader Nick Forbes was deselected by his local party. Another senior Newcastle Labour figure leaving the stage this year is the former council leader Lord Beecham, who is standing down after 55 unbroken years’ service on the city council. There are very few councillors left now from before the 1974 reorganisation.
We move west to Cumbria, whose local government is being reorganised. Cumbria county council and the six district councils under it will be dissolved next year, and the two successor unitary councils which will replace them in April 2023 hold their first elections now.
The new Cumberland council takes in nearly all of the old county of that name, running from Millom through Whitehaven, Workington and past Carlisle all the way up to the Scottish border; the only major part of old Cumberland missing from the new council is the Penrith area. That is included within the new district of Westmorland and Furness, which covers the south of the county and takes in Kendal, Windermere, Ulverston and Barrow.
For the 2022 election Cumberland council is reusing the current electoral divisions for Cumbria county council (the map for the whole of which is given above). This last went to the polls in 2017, in which year Cumbria was the only county council not to return a Conservative majority. A Labour/Lib Dem coalition is in power at the county hall in Carlisle. The 2017 county elections returned 21 Conservatives, 18 Labour, five independents and two Lib Dems within the new Cumberland council area; the Conservatives subsequently gained two seats in by-elections last year to give them 23 out of 46. The Conservatives also run all three of the outgoing Cumberland district councils. They are one seat short of a majority in Carlisle, run a minority administration in Allerdale (Workington, Keswick and the Solway coast) where Labour collapsed in 2019, and have also recruited the elected mayor of Copeland Mike Starkie to their banner. Starkie was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019 as an independent candidate; his mayoralty will disappear with Copeland council, and he is not seeking election to the new council. If the Conservatives can repeat their 2021 result they will win overall control here; a Labour majority would require the party to reverse their recent vote collapse in Workington town.
The inaugural Cumberland council election will be combined with two by-elections to the old structure. One of these is for the Longtown and the Border ward of Carlisle council, a massive area which stretches the length of the Cumbria-Scotland border. The only large centre of population here is Longtown, a crossing-point of the River Esk on the A7 road from Carlisle towards Hawick. This border area has been strongly associated with the military since the days of Hadrian’s Wall, and even now the ward’s major employer is the Ministry of Defence, which has a large depot near Longtown used for storing munitions.
This by-election follows the death of Conservative councillor Valerie Tarbitt who sat on both Cumbria county council and Carlisle council, but is only for her city council seat. Tarbitt topped the poll here at the 2019 Carlisle elections at which the Greens came a rather distant second to the Conservative slate. For this by-election the defending Conservative candidate Sam Bown is challenged only by somebody who has recently moved to the ward: that’s Timothy Pickstone of the Liberal Democrats, who is currently chief executive of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors as well as being the mayor of Bury in Greater Manchester. Pickstone is standing down from Bury council this year. (This column can report that he did break away from his by-election campaign for long enough to turn up to the Gallipoli Sunday commemorations in Bury the weekend before last.) Bown and Pickstone are also standing against each other in a straight fight for the Longtown ward of the new Cumberland council, so they have two chances to win or lose.
The other Cumbrian by-election on 5th May is to Allerdale council in the very different territory of St Michael’s ward. This is western Workington, running from the edge of the town centre to the railway station, the Town Quay and the old steelworks area, much of which has now been redeveloped. Boundary changes for the 2019 election reduced St Michael’s ward to two seats, which went to independent Will Wilkinson and Labour’s Mary Bainbridge. The by-election is to replace Bainbridge; the defending Labour candidate is Barbara Cannon, who is challenged by independent Ralph Hunter and John Connell of the Conservatives.
Westmorland and Furness council has the look of somewhere which is likely to be hung for quite a long time. The 2017 county elections here returned 16 Conservative councillors, 14 Liberal Democrats and 8 Labour; the Conservatives lost a by-election in Ulverston West to the Green Party last year. New ward boundaries have been drawn up for this new council, so these figures may not be comparable. Nearly all of the Labour vote here comes out of Barrow-in-Furness, the new district’s only large town, where Labour have a large majority on the outgoing council and where the Lib Dems are not organised. The deeply-rural and sparsely-populated Eden council, covering the area around Penrith and Appleby beyond Shap Fell and the Lune Gorge, has an anti-Conservative coalition in place under a Lib Dem leader; and the Liberal Democrats are in majority control of the largest of the outgoing districts, South Lakeland. Much of South Lakeland forms the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency of the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, and for the Conservatives to get a majority here they will need to find some way of defeating his political machine — which is easier said then done, given that the Tories have been trying to do that for two decades now.
In Lancashire there are elections this year for one-third of Pendle, Burrnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn, Blackburn with Darwen, Chorley, West Lancashire and Preston councils. Pendle got new ward boundaries last year and the all-out elections returned a Conservative majority; however, that has disappeared going into these elections because two Conservative seats are currently vacant and another of their councillors has defected to Labour. Nelson is like that. There are four wards with split representation, of which the Conservatives are only defending one (Waterside and Horsfield ward in Colne).
Burnley council is a right old mess. The latest composition has 18 Labour councillors, 9 Conservatives (who have absorbed UKIP here, although “reverse takeover” may be a more appropriate term for what actually happened), 8 Lib Dems, 5 Greens and 5 councillors from the Burrnley and Padiham Independent Party. A coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats is in place. Seats have flown in all directions here over the last few years, but a repeat of the 2021 results would see Labour lose two seats and the Lib Dems lose one, leaving the ruling coalition with a majority of one.
Further down the M65 motorway we come to Hyndburn district, based on Accrington and its satellite towns, which is on a knife-edge partly because the local Labour group has recently fallen apart. In 2018 Labour had a 7–4 lead over the Conservatives in wards, Labour won the 2019 election here by 9 wards to 3, and 2021 was a 6–6 draw which should give 22 Labour councillors against 13 Conservatives. However the latest composition has just 15 Labour councillors, 12 Conservatives, 6 independents (most of whom are Labour defectors) and two vacancies in Labour-held seats, meaning that the Labour party has lost control of the council. One of these vacancies came too late to be combined with this election: former council leader and Labour MEP Michael Hindley quit the council last month after receiving a police caution for assaulting Labour-to-Conservative defector Gareth Molineux, and Andrew’s Previews will cover a by-election for Hindley’s seat in Overton ward (northern Great Harwood) at a later date.
Three of the Labour-to-independent defectors are up this year: Bernadette Parkinson in Netherton ward (southern Great Harwood), Jenny Molineux in Overton ward, and Diane Fielding in Spring Hill ward (on the southern edge of Accrington). None of them are seeking re-election to the council, although there is still a Molineux on the ballot in Overton as the aforementioned Gareth Molineux is the Conservative candidate there. Overton was won by the Conservatives in 2019 and by Labour in 2021, which should give you an idea that it has slightly unusual voting patterns. Labour also have a by-election to defend in St Oswald’s ward (the western end of Oswaldtwistle, plus some Blackburn overspill) which is a marginal ward where the other two seats are Conservative-held. The wards to watch here are probably Overton and St Oswald’s; if the Labour party lose both of the seats they are defending in those wards, they will most likely be relying on holding the forthcoming Overton by-election to get their council majority back.
Over the West Pennine Moors we have Rossendale council, covering the small towns at the head of the Irwell valley. This is hung with a minority Labour administration in place after the party lost its majority last year: there are currently 17 Labour councillors, 13 Conservatives, three independents, 2 Community First councillors in Whitworth, and a Green. Rossendale is a very swingy council where almost no ward is safe; and Labour are only defending five seats this year. Last year Labour won eight seats on Rossendale council and made gains here on the county council, and a repeat of those results would deliver three gains and a Labour majority.
Labour have large majorities in Blackburn with Darwen and in Chorley, where new boundaries came in last year. The Labour majority on Preston council is smaller but just as secure.
Our final council in modern Lancashire is West Lancashire, based on Ormskirk, the rural area east of Southport and the New Town of Skelmersdale. West Lancashire council has some of the country’s most polarised election results, but politics here has become interesting in recent years thanks to the growth of the OWLs — a localist party whose initials stand for Our West Lancashire. Labour lost control here in 2021 and now run a minority administration with 23 seats against 19 Conservatives, 7 OWLs and 3 independents (two of whom were elected as Labour councillors). Labour are defending ten seats this year, including difficult defences in Ormskirk and Burscough; the Conservatives should take back the rural North Meols ward next to Southport, which surprisingly voted Labour in 2018. This could be one to watch.
Before we leave the Lancashire county council area there is one local by-election to report, in the Earnshaw Bridge ward of South Ribble council. This is New Town territory in western Leyland, and is marginal territory between the two main parties. In 2015 the ward split its two seats between the Conservatives and Labour; Labour gained the Conservative seat in 2019 but with a majority of only twelve votes. If the Conservatives gain this by-election, they will become the largest party on South Ribble council and the Labour minority administration could be in danger, so the stakes here are high. The defending Labour candidate is Lou Jackson, Craige Southern challenges for the Tories, and the Lib Dems’ Simon Thomson also stands.
There are some major changes to Merseyside’s local elections this year, as all the seats on St Helens council are up for election on new ward boundaries while the Liverpool council elections have been cancelled. Both of those councils are moving to whole elections every four years. Labour have secure majorities in St Helens, Knowsley and Sefton and the party run Wirral council (above) as a minority, with 28 Labour seats (one of which is vacant) against 23 Conservatives, 7 Green seats (one of which is vacant), 6 Lib Dems and 2 ex-Labour independents. If the 2021 results are repeated Labour will lose three seats: Bebington and Prenton wards to the Greens, and Pensby and Thingwall ward to the Conservatives.
Moving over to Greater Manchester, it’s time yet again to talk about the Greatest Town in the Known Universe. I swear, every time I talk about my town’s politics things get more complicated. It’s only just over four years since I wrote in this column that
“it’s surprising … that nobody has previously tried to form a localist party in Bolton borough given its residents’ reputation for insularity” (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 98).
What happened next?
Well, the last three local elections in Bolton have returned 24 Conservative councillors, 21 Labour, 6 Farnworth and Kearsley First, 5 Lib Dems, 3 Horwich and Blackrod First, and 1 UKIP councillor. The latest composition on the council website gives 22 Conservatives (1 elected as Horwich and Blackrod First), 17 Labour, 5 Liberal Democrat, 4 Farnworth and Kearsley First, 4 independents (2 elected as Labour, 1 as Conservative, 1 as UKIP), 2 Crompton Independents (both elected as Labour), 2 Bolton Independent Group (both elected as Conservatives), 2 Horwich and Blackrod First, 1 Bolton for Change councillor (who was elected as Farnworth and Kearsley First) and 1 One Kearsley councillor (who was also elected as Farnworth and Kearsley First). The Conservatives run Bolton council as a minority with the support of the localist groups, making the Greatest Town the only Conservative-controlled metropolitan borough in the north of England.
One MRP-based model of this election, published by Electoral Calculus and which this piece will refer to again, suggested that Labour could gain control of Bolton this year. To do that they would need to win all 20 seats up for election, which has never happened before and is not going to happen now. Indeed, there’s little to suggest that Bolton Labour are going to pick themselves up off the floor any time soon. A repeat of last year’s result would deliver two Conservative gains (from an ex-Labour independent in your columnist’s own Little Lever and Darcy Lever, and from the Lib Dems in Westhoughton South), offset by a Conservative loss to Horwich and Blackrod First in Horwich and Blackrod ward. The localists continue to multiply: as well as the Placename First parties, which are joined this year by Little Lever and Darcy Lever First, a group called Bolton for Change are contesting most wards on a joint ticket with Reform UK. They have one councillor, a defector from Farnworth and Kearsley First who is seeking re-election in Kearsley; with candidates also standing there for FKF and One Kearsley (God forbid there’s more than one Kearsley) the lucky voters of Kearsley ward can choose between three different localists in addition to the three main parties.
The localist surge of recent years has also spilled over into Radcliffe. This is part of the borough of Bury, which now has a slim Labour majority: 28 seats against 15 Conservatives, 4 Lib Dems, 3 councillors from Radcliffe First and an ex-Conservative independent. The whole of Bury council is up this year on new ward boundaries, although the basic pattern of the wards is very much the same as before and the changes amount to minor tinkering around the edges. In 2021 Labour won 8 wards to 6 Conservatives, 2 Radcliffe First and a Lib Dem, so control of the council is very much up for grabs. The Labour path to retaining their majority runs through holding their seats in Elton, Radcliffe East and Radcliffe West wards; the Tories will need to gain Ramsbottom, Redvales and Unsworth wards for overall control, and having to disendorse one of their Redvales candidates for anti-Semitism does not help with that.
Oldham council deserves a mention here following some rather disturbing goings-on. The outgoing Labour council leader lost his seat last year in Failsworth to a localist party following an acrimonious campaign, and his replacement as leader Arooj Shah had her car firebombed last year. The council has a large Labour majority (40 out of 60 seats) which is unlikely to be overturned.
For the prospect of changes in control in Greater Manchester we should look to Stockport council, where the Liberal Democrats became the largest party last year but Labour are running a minority administration with Conservative support. The latest composition has 26 Lib Dem councillors, 25 Labour, 8 Conservatives, 3 Heald Green Ratepayers and a Green councillor. A repeat of the 2021 results here would see Labour losing Reddish South to the Green Party, with other seat changes cancelling each other out.
The only elections in Cheshire this year are for one-third of Halton council (Runcorn and Widnes), which is culturally closer to Merseyside than to Cheshire and accordingly has a secure Labour majority. The councillors up here were last elected in 2021 following boundary changes.
In Yorkshire we have elections for the whole of North Yorkshire county council on new division boundaries, for one third of Barnsley, Hull, Sheffield, and all the West Yorkshire boroughs, and for the elected mayoralty of South Yorkshire.
Formerly known as the Sheffield City Region mayoralty, the South Yorkshire post is the biggest single election taking place on 5 May this year. It has been held since the inaugural 2018 election by Dan Jarvis, who is also the Labour MP for Barnsley Central. Jarvis came close to winning in the first round in 2018, polling 48% of the first preferences against 15% for the Conservatives and 11% for the Liberal Democrats; he picked up the lion’s share of the transfers to thrash the Conservatives 74–26 in the runoff.
During Jarvis’ term the South Yorkshire mayoralty has been significantly beefed up, with new powers over transport, strategic planning and suchlike together with a salary. Jarvis has decided to concentrate on his Westminster role and he is not seeking re-election as mayor.
The Labour selection for the second South Yorkshire mayoral election has fallen on Oliver Coppard, who showed his campaigning credentials by coming close to defeating the Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam at the 2015 general election. Unfortunately for all involved, Coppard wasn’t available when the 2017 snap election was called and the constituency ended up with Jared O’Mara instead. Coppard is currently chairman of the trustees of Sheffield Hallam students’ union. The Conservative candidate is Clive Watkinson, who runs a furniture retailer in Barnsley and is a director of Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber of Commerce. The Liberal Democrats have selected Sheffield councillor Joe Otten. Also standing are Simon Biltcliffe for the Yorkshire Party, Bex Whyman for the Green Party and David Bettney for the Social Democratic Party.
The largest component of the South Yorkshire mayoral area is the city of Sheffield, which went into no overall control in 2021. There are currently 40 Labour councillors, 29 Lib Dems, 13 Greens, 1 Conservative (from Stocksbridge, rather than the middle-class bits of Hallam) and 1 ex-Labour independent. Labour and the Greens are currently running the council in coalition. A repeat of the 2021 results would see Labour fall further from a majority, mostly to the benefit of the Greens.
Moving into West Yorkshire, we need to have a word about Wakefield where there is likely to be a parliamentary by-election soon following the disgrace of Conservative MP Imran Ahmed Khan. Andrew’s Previews will of course give you all the lowdown on that in due course, although the history of the seat may well prove very difficult to follow because the Wakefield constituency seems to have been a favourite target of Boundary Commission tinkering through the decades. You have been warned.
The Wakefield seat as currently drawn is the most Conservative part of Wakefield district, which also extends to Pontefract, Castleford and the former coalfield area around Hemsworth. In 2018 the Conservatives won five wards in the district, three of which are in the Wakefield constituency. A repeat of the 2021 results would see the Conservatives gain three seats nett and the Lib Dems gain one, which would still leave Labour (who go into this election with 44 out of 63 seats) with a large majority.
The Labour majority in Leeds has been eroded a bit over the last few years, and the party now stands at 53 out of 99 seats giving it a majority of seven. There are 24 Conservatives, 11 localists and independents, 8 Lib Dems and 3 Greens. A repeat of 2021 would see Labour lose Ardsley and Robin Hood to the Conservatives but gain Weetwood from the Lib Dems for no net change. There are a few marginal Labour-held wards (including Middleton Park where the challengers, bizarrely, are the SDP), but Labour would probably have to lose all of them for Leeds to go into No Overall Control.
Calderdale is in a similar position to Leeds, with a small Labour majority which doesn’t look in serious danger at this election. There are currently 28 Labour seats (one of which is vacant) against 16 Conservatives, 5 Lib Dems and two independents. Labour are defending two wards this year which voted Conservative in 2021 (Elland, and Illingworth and Mixenden), but the Conservatives will have to do much better than last year to put the Labour majority in danger.
West Yorkshire’s only hung council is Kirklees, which has a minority Labour administration with 33 out of 69 seats. The opposition is made up of 19 Conservatives, 9 Lib Dems, 3 Greens and 5 independent councillors. If the 2021 results are repeated then the Liberal Democrats would lose two seats in Huddersfield to the Conservatives. Labour need two gains for overall control, and their easiest path to a majority lies through recovering two seats which they have lost in by-elections since 2018 (Colne Valley to the Conservatives and Golcar to the Lib Dems). If Labour fall short in one of those wards, they will need to gain the perennial marginal of Denby Dale from the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems have better prospects in the city of Kingston upon Hull, which is on a knife-edge. There are currently 29 Labour councillors, 26 Lib Dems, a single Conservative and a single independent giving a Labour majority of one. If the Lib Dems can repeat last year’s performance, they will take overall control of the council.
Finally, we have the last election to North Yorkshire county council, which returned a Conservative majority at its previous election in 2017: 55 Conservatives against 10 independents, 4 Labour and 3 Lib Dem councillors. There are new division boundaries this year with an increase from 72 councillors to 90. As a result of local government reorganisation the county council will become North Yorkshire’s unitary council in April 2023, with all the district councils underneath it disappearing then. The Tories were much weaker here in the 2019 district council elections: Scarborough council is run by a Labour-Independent coalition, Ryedale by a Lib Dem-independent arrangement, Richmondshire by an independent-led anti-Conservative coalition. The Conservatives do, however, have majorities in Selby, Hambleton and Harrogate districts and hold half of the seats in Craven.
There are currently two vacancies on Harrogate council, in the Conservative-held rural wards of Marston Moor (covering the countryside between Wetherby and York) and Wathvale. The returning officer for Harrogate has decided, for reasons which this column doesn’t fully understand, that the Marston Moor by-election cannot go ahead but the Wathvale by-election can. This is confusing enough in its own right, but also runs counter to a precedent set in 2018 by the returning officer for Weymouth and Portland: a by-election went ahead there four years ago in exactly the same situation as the Marston Moor vacancy (Andrew’s Previews 2018, page 154; 2020, page 73).
Anyway, we are where we are so let’s look at Wathvale ward. This covers thirteen parishes to the north and east of Ripon, including North Stainley with Sleningford parish which is cut off from the rest of the ward by the River Ure — one of the Boundary Commission’s more curious decisions. That parish takes in the theme park of Lightwater Valley, while the territory east of the Ure includes the large military airfield at Dishforth next to the A1 motorway. Harrogate council last went to the polls in 2018 when this ward was safely Conservative; their defending candidate Sam Green is challenged on this occasion by Chris Knight of the Lib Dems and Hannah Corlett of the Green Party. Knight and Corlett are also seeking election to the North Yorkshire county council, in the larger division of Wathvale and Bishop Monkton.
This year is a quiet part of the electoral cycle in the East Midlands, with just four councils holding ordinary elections. In the case of two of these — Amber Valley and Derby — this will be their last thirds election before moving onto the whole-council cycle from 2023 onwards.
The Conservatives performed very well in Amber Valley last year, and now have a large majority on the council with 28 seats against 15 Labour, 1 Green and 1 “Socialist”. Half of the Labour group is up for re-election this year so there is little prospect of a Labour strikeback.
Derby council is hung with a minority Conservative administration running the city on 21 seats. The opposition is made up of 13 Labour councillors, 9 Lib Dems, 5 councillors from Reform Derby (who are ex-UKIP and are contesting this election on a joint ticket with Reform UK) and three independents. The Conservatives performed well here in 2018 and they have eight seats to defend this year with few prospects of gains, so Derby will stay in No Overall Control.
The other East Midlands councils up this year are the city of Lincoln, which has a Labour majority, and North East Lincolnshire (above) where the Conservatives ran riot last year. These will not change hands, although it will be interesting to see if Labour can stage some sort of recovery in Grimsby.
There are two by-elections to report in this region. In Derbyshire we come to a rural ward of twelve parishes in the countryside between Ashbourne and Matlock, part of which falls within the Peak District National Park. This is Carsington Water ward, named after a large reservoir which lies on the ward boundary. The ward covers a rugged and rather remote rural area with hill-farming being a major economic sector; as a result Carsington Water’s proportion of self-employed people (24.1%) is the second-highest for any ward in the East Midlands.
This area had been represented for decades by the Conservatives’ Lewis Rose, who passed away in January at the age of 74 after a lifetime in local government. He started his career in 1971 by being elected to Ashbourne Rural District council at the age of 23; he was the last survivor of the original West Derbyshire district council which replaced it in the 1970s reorganisation, and which was renamed as Derbyshire Dales district in 1988. Rose led West Derbyshire/Derbyshire Dales council’s Conservative group for 45 years until 2019, and for much of that period he was leader or deputy leader of the council. He was appointed OBE in 1995 for political and public service. His example will be a hard act to follow. Lewis Rose had a safe seat in Carsington Water ward; his widow Janet has been selected as the defending Conservative candidate, while also standing are Monty Stuart-Monteith for the Lib Dems, Andrew Hartley for Labour and John Ward for the Green Party.
For the other East Midlands region we take another trip to England’s “smallest” “county” as we come to Uppingham, which with a population of just under 5,000 is the second-largest metropolis in Rutland. Uppingham is best-known to outsiders for its public school, which clearly shows up in its 2011 census return: the ward’s proportion of 16- and 17-year-olds (10.2%) is the sixth-highest of any ward in England and Wales and the highest figure for any ward in the East Midlands, and Uppingham ward is also in the top 50 for those employed in education (22.4%). The pupils are of course too young to vote, and for the adults Uppingham’s elections are curiously balanced affairs with no party ever standing a full slate for the three available seata. Four of the ward’s five ordinary elections this century have returned candidates from three different political traditions, including the 2019 election at which the Tories’ Lucy Stephenson and independent Marc Oxley were re-elected, while the Green Party’s Miranda Jones (who had been the Labour candidate here in 2015) defeated Tory councillor Rachel Burkitt for the final seat.
Jones is relocating to the Scottish Highlands, and there is no defending Green candidate to replace her. We have a free-for-all! An all-male ballot paper to succeed Jones has four candidates on it: Giles Clifton for the Conservatives, independent Dave Ainslie, Stephen Lambert for the Lib Dems and Phil Bourqui for Reform UK. There will still be Green representation on Rutland council thanks to the party’s recent gain of the Ryhall and Casterton by-election, a win which new councillor Rick Wilson put down to his opposition to a large solar farm planned for the ward. And there was me thinking the Green Party were supporters of renewable energy, particularly at a time like this. The ruling Conservative group on Rutland council, which won a majority in 2019 with 15 out of 27 seats, is falling apart: the Rutland Conservatives are going backwards in by-elections, and the recent formation of a breakaway group means that the Conservative administration is now in a minority with just nine councillors left. They desperately need a gain here to try and shore their position up.
In the West Midlands region there are elections for the whole of Birmingham and Newcastle-under-Lyme councils, half of Nuneaton and Bedworth council, and one-third of the council in Cannock Chase, Redditch, Rugby, Tamworth, Worcester and the remaining six West Midlands boroughs. There are no local elections this year in Shropshire or Herefordshire.
This was a region where the Conservatives did very well in last year’s local elections, gaining overall control of Cannock Chase (for the first time), Dudley, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Worcester and greatly increasing their majority on Redditch council (above). With those good Conservative years in the bank it will be difficult for Labour to make headway this year in those councils — indeed in Redditch the Labour party face wipeout if last year’s results are repeated.
The big prize here will be the city of Birmingham, where the whole council is up for election. Birmingham last held elections in 2018 when Labour won 67 seats, the Conservatives 25, the Lib Dems 8 and the Greens 1. The comfortable Labour hold in the Erdington parliamentary by-election two months ago suggests that Labour are on course to retain control here, although possibly with a reduced majority. Of the other big cities in the West Midlands metropolitan area, Wolverhampton saw large Conservative gains last year while Coventry’s politics have been affected by a damaging and long-running strike by bin lorry drivers; both of those cities have almost-impregnable Labour majorities but watch for seat changes there.
Recent polling analysis from Electoral Calculus has suggested that Labour could be on course to gain control of Newcastle-under-Lyme council in Staffordshire. This district isn’t just the western half of the Potteries, as it also takes in Kidsgrove and a small rural hinterland. Newcastle council was hung in 2018: the Conservatives polled the most votes, but Labour ended up as the largest party with 20 seats against 18 Conservatives, 3 independents and 3 Lib Dems. All of the independent councillors have since joined the Conservative group, and by-election gains mean this council now has a Conservative majority. One of those by-election gains came last November in Knutton ward with a 25% swing from Labour, and earlier in 2021 the Conservatives won all 9 of the district’s Staffordshire county council divisions. Labour will be doing very well if they hold what they have in Newcastle-under-Lyme, never mind challenging for a majority.
There is a potentially-crucial by-election taking place in this region to Staffordshire Moorlands council, in the town of Cheadle. Cheadle South East ward is holding its second by-election since the 2019 council elections, which returned independent councillors Richard Alcock and Peter Elkin. Alcock and Elkin were local government veterans who were first elected back in the early 1990s. Since the 2003 elections, when the current ward boundaries were introduced, Alcock had held one of Cheadle South East’s two seats continuously, with the other seat alternating between Elkin and the Conservatives at each election.
Peter Elkin retired from his upholstery trade some years ago, and he stood down from the council in December 2020; true to form, the resulting by-election in May 2021 went to the Conservatives rather comfortably. Richard Alcock, who was a dairy farmer, then passed away in January causing this by-election. Abigail Wilkinson, who was runner-up here in the 2019 election, will try to succeed Alcock as an independent candidate, while the Conservative candidate is Zenobia Routledge and Labour have selected Matthew Spooner. Staffordshire Moorlands council is currently run by a Conservative-Independent alliance, but the Conservatives are not far short of a majority and they will hold half the seats on the council if they gain this by-election.
The South West is a relatively quiet region this year. There are elections this year for half of Cheltenham council, one-third of Swindon, Exeter and Plymouth councils and the whole of Somerset county council. There are no local elections this year in Cornwall, Dorset, Wiltshire or the former county of Avon.
Three of these councils are safe. Cheltenham council has a large Lib Dem majority; the parliamentary seat here is a top Liberal Democrat target, but the party may well go slightly backwards on the council because they are defending a strong result from 2018. Swindon council (above) is now firmly in the Conservative column but should be watched nonetheless given that the town has two marginal parliamentary seats, while the Labour majority in Exeter (below) should continue even though the party have four casual vacancies to defend this year.
Although there are no local elections this year in Bristols, the voters there will nonetheless be called to the polls for a referendum on whether to abolish the city’s elected mayoralty and move to the council being run under the committee system. If there is a vote for change, it will apply from May 2024 when the term of Marvin Rees, the current Labour mayor, ends.
The big prize in the South West will be the election to Somerset county council, which will become the unitary council for Somerset in 2023 when the districts under it are abolished. This last went to the polls in 2017 when the Conservatives won a large majority — 35 seats, against 12 Lib Dems, 3 Labour, 3 independents and 2 Greens. The county council is doubling in size this year, so multiply those figures by 2 for a par score. This Conservative majority is large but not particularly strong, and there are a lot of marginal divisions here.
The 2019 Somerset district council results were not good for the Conservatives who now only control Sedgemoor council. That year the Liberal Democrats gained control of South Somerset, surprisingly won a majority in the new district of Somerset West and Taunton (which now faces abolition after just four years in operation), and became the largest party on Mendip council. These county elections could be difficult for the Conservatives to hold, and the Liberal Democrats will think they have a genuine chance of gaining overall control of Somerset county council — a feat they last achieved in 2005.
Finally we come to Plymouth, where the Conservatives gained nine seats last year to take minority control. Plymouth council is a mess, with the last count having 23 Labour councillors, 22 Conservatives and 12 independents, who are divided between a Conservative splinter group of nine and a Labour splinter group of three. The independents combined to no-confidence the Conservative council leader in March, and the party has had to find a replacement leader going into this election campaign. A Labour bounceback looks out of the question as the party are defending 11 seats this year, including five wards the Conservatives won in 2021; a repeat of that performance will deliver a Conservative majority regardless of the party’s current split here.
We now move to the Eastern region, starting in Cambridgeshire. This is a particularly busy area this year, with one-third of Cambridge and Peterborough councils up together with the whole of Huntingdonshire and South Cambridgeshire districts. Only the east side of the county (East Cambridgeshire and Fenland districts) misses out on the fun.
Peterborough has been run by the Conservatives for some years but has been in and out of No Overall Control during that time. We are currently in a No Overall Control phase, with 28 Conservative seats, 17 Labour, 8 Lib Dems (including one vacant seat), 3 Greens, 3 Werrington First councillors and an ex-Conservative independent. The Conservatives did very well here in 2021, winning 16 seats out of a possible 21; however, they were defending a difficult ward map and that only represented a net gain of one. By contrast only seven Conservative seats are up for re-election this year, and a repeat of last year’s performance will deliver a Conservative majority here.
South of Peterborough we come to Huntingdonshire which has a Conservative majority: the 2018 elections delivered 30 seats against 7 Lib Dems, 6 councillors from the St Neots Independent Group, 5 independents and 4 Labour. There have been a lot of by-elections here since, but the only net change is Labour losing a seat to the independents after one of the Labour councillors was elected as Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The Conservatives gained county council seats here in 2021, a year in which they lost control of the county council, so their machine here may well be in good shape.
The Tory collapse on the county council instead came in South Cambridgeshire district where the Lib Dems performed very well in 2021. That came off the back of a near-miss in the South Cambridgeshire constituency at the 2019 general election and the Lib Dems winning control of the district in 2018. Nothing suggests that’s going to change in the 2022 district elections. South Cambridgeshire district completely surrounds the city of Cambridge, whose entire council was up last year on new ward boundaries; Labour have a secure-looking majority here.
The only other councils in East Anglia holding ordinary elections this year are the city of Norwich and the borough of Ipswich. Norwich (yes, the city boundary really does look like that) has a Labour majority with the Greens forming the main opposition, and last year’s local elections don’t suggest any major change to that pattern is incoming. The councillors here were last elected in 2019 following ward boundary changes.
By contrast Labour lost six seats in Ipswich to the Conservatives last year; a repeat of that performance would deliver four more Conservative gains this year. With Labour starting on 29 seats out of 48 that would still be a Labour majority, but only just.
We also have a by-election taking place to South Norfolk council, in the Mulbarton and Stoke Holy Cross ward. This is a large rural area covering nine parishes to the south of Norwich and the east of Wymondham. Around 41% of the ward’s electors live in Mulbarton, with Stoke Holy Cross — the original home of the mustard manufacturer Colman’s, which was founded here in 1814 — being the only other parish here with over 1,000 electors. The ward split its three seats between two Conservatives and a Lib Dem in 2019; this by-election is for the Liberal Democrats’ seat, and their defending candidate Ian Spratt faces competition from Silvia Schmidtova of the Conservatives, John Martin for Labour, Andrew Pond for Reform UK and Tom Williamson of the Green Party.
The other standalone by-election in this region is to Chelmsford council in Essex, and falls in the Little Baddow, Danbury and Sandon ward, a large ward covering the countryside immediately to the east of Chelmsford. This is a safe Conservative ward and their defending candidate Steph Scott should have little trouble despatching her opponents Sue Baker (Lib Dem) and Stephen Capper (Lab).
Essex and Hertfordshire have a large number of councils which hold thirds elections. Colchester council has been under No Overall Control for some time, but saw a change of control after the 2021 elections when the Highwoods Independents dumped their Labour and Lib Dem coalition partners and formed an administration with the Conservatives instead. Going into these elections the Conservatives have 23 seats, the Lib Dems have 12 (one of which is vacant), Labour are on 11, the Highwoods Independents have 3 and the Green Party have 2. The ruling coalition has a majority of one, and that is in some danger: the Conservatives are defending a difficult ward map this time round, and a repeat of last year’s performance would result in them losing three seats (St Anne’s/St John’s and Shrub End to the Lib Dems, Castle to the Greens).
Most of the Essex councils up this year are concentrated on the Thames estuary, starting with England’s newest city of Southend-on-Sea. This is currently hung, with 23 Conservative councillors, 13 Labour plus one vacancy, 9 independents and 5 Lib Dems. The Conservatives need three gains for overall control, and if they can match last year’s performance they will get there.
The Tories are on the defensive next door in Castle Point, covering Canvey Island and Benfleet. Canvey returns localist councillors in local elections, while the mainland normally returns Conservative councillors; however, the Conservatives suddenly started losing mainland seats to independents here last year, leaving them with a majority of one on the council. The Tories have nine seats to defend this year, three of which are in wards which voted for independent councillors in 2021; and they need to hold every one of them to preserve their majority.
The Conservatives gained overall control of Basildon council last year, and now hold 25 seats against 10 Labour and seven independents or localists. They are defending nine wards this year, but Labour will have to strike back hard to force the council straight back into no overall control.
Thurrock council now has a similar Conservative majority after the party absorbed most of the Thurrock Independents and performed extremely well in the 2021 elections. Labour only held two wards that year, and they have nine seats to defend this time round. Expect an increased Conservative majority.
The Conservatives have long-standing majority control of Rochford, Brentwood and Epping Forest districts, and gained control of Harlow (above) in 2021 with an extremely impressive performance. There are 12 Labour councillors left in Harlow against 21 Conservatives, and half of the Labour group is up for re-election this time; there is no chance of an immediate left-wing bounceback here.
Most of the districts in Hertfordshire have elections for a third of their council, with the main exception being St Albans where the whole council is up this year on new ward boundaries. St Albans council was gained by the Liberal Democrats last year but their majority is small: they have 30 seats against 23 Conservatives, 2 Labour, 2 independents and 1 Green. The Lib Dems can now probably count on winning all or nearly all of the 24 seats in St Albans proper, and with the council going down in size to 56 seats they won’t need to win much outside the city to hold their majority.
The Liberal Democrats have secure majorities on Watford council (above) and in the Three Rivers district which surrounds Watford on three seats. This year sees the sixth election for the Mayor of Watford. In 2018 the new Lib Dem candidate Peter Taylor came very close to winning in the first round, leading 49–34 on first preferences against Labour; that extended to 61–39 in the runoff after Taylor picked up most of the transfers from the Conservatives. Taylor is seeking a second term as mayor, and he is opposed by two BAME candidates: Labour’s Asif Khan is a Watford councillor for Leggatts ward and Hertfordshire county councillor for North Watford, while the Conservatives have selected Binta Mehta-Parmar.
There are better Conservative prospects in the east of Hertfordshire. Broxbourne council is completely safe for them, and they are now back in control of Welwyn Hatfield district (above) following a very impressive performance last year in which fifteen of the borough’s 17 wards voted Conservative. The Tories are only defending eight seats this year, so a continued Tory majority looks nailed on.
The best Labour prospects in Hertfordshire are in the north of the county. They are securely in control of Stevenage, and also run the hung North Hertfordshire council (above) in coalition with the Lib Dems. The coalition has a small majority, with 15 Labour and 11 Lib Dems opposed by 23 Conservatives who need two gains to take control. On the basis of the 2021 results this is a realistic possibility, but a very poor by-election result in Hitchin in March should give the Tories pause for thought.
There are no local elections this year in Bedfordshire.
We move into the South East region by way of the New City of Milton Keynes, which has had a hung council since 2006. As in North Hertfordshire, a Labour/Lib Dem coalition is running the show here: there are 19 Labour and 13 Lib Dem councillors against 24 Conservatives and one independent. The Conservatives need five gains for a majority here; a repeat of last year’s results would deliver that, but this may prove a tall order given the change in the political weather over the last twelve months. Expect the coalition to continue.
In Oxfordshire the Conservatives look securely in control of Cherwell district. West Oxfordshire (above) has a smaller Tory majority after the party lost three seats last year, with 27 Conservative councillors against 10 Lib Dems, 8 Labour, 3 independents and a Green councillor; however, the wards the Conservatives are defending this year look safe enough. The city of Oxford got new ward boundaries last year which preserved a large Labour majority; there’s little prospect of this changing.
Oxfordshire’s Vale of White Horse district has a by-election in Steventon and the Hanneys ward, which covers four parishes along the Great Western main line to the north of Wantage. This seat is vacated by the Conservatives’ Matthew Barber, a former leader of the council who was elected last year as the Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner. Barber was run close in 2019 by the Liberal Democrats; Louise Brown is the defending Conservative candidate, the Lib Dems’ Sally Povolotsky may fancy her chances of a gain, while independent candidate David Corps also stands.
Moving to Berkshire, the whole of Reading council is up for election on new ward boundaries. This is a council of TV stars: the Reading University team who came very close to winning the last series of University Challenge includes PhD student Margaret Ounsley, who was a Labour councillor here many years ago; while the Conservative group on the current council includes the former BBC newsreader and journalist Clarence Mitchell, who is seeking re-election. The outgoing council has a Labour majority with 29 councillors against nine Conservatives, 5 Greens, 2 Lib Dems and an ex-Labour independent; this should be safe enough in the current political climate.
Part of the reason for that is that Reading council doesn’t cover the whole of the Reading urban area; some of its western suburbs are in West Berkshire where there are no elections this year, while much of the eastern side of the built-up area is covered by the bizarrely-drawn Wokingham district. The Tories have been underperforming in Wokingham for some time, and they lost two more seats last year to fall to 31 against 18 Lib Dems, 3 Labour (one of which is vacant) and 2 independents. The opposition need four gains to send the council into No Overall Control; but a lot of the low-hanging fruit has now gone, and they will need to do better than in 2021 to make further progress.
The other Berkshire council holding elections this year is Slough, where the council has run out of money and the friendly bombs — sorry, the Commissioners have been sent in. Despite that, the borough has an impregnable Labour majority.
Moving over the border into Hampshire, Rushmoor council (Farnborough and Aldershot, or possibly Aldershot and Farnborough) has a strong Conservative majority. The neighbouring Hart district (shown above, covering Fleet and nearby towns) is hung; the Conservatives are the largest party with 12 seats against 10 each for the Liberal Democrats and the Community Campaign (Hart), with one independent. The Lib Dems and the Community Campaign have had an electoral pact and a coalition agreement here for some years, and they will continue to run the council between them.
The whole of Basingstoke and Deane council was up last year with new wards. The Conservatives have a majority here with 33 seats against 10 Labour, 6 independents and 5 Lib Dems. Barring a complete meltdown the Tories should remain in control here. Further down the M3 Eastleigh council is completely safe for the Liberal Democrats and Winchester council isn’t much less safe for them.
The Conservatives performed well last year to take overall control of Southampton by a narrow margin: they have 25 council seats against 23 for Labour, so one net loss and that majority is gone. The ward map is in their favour as the Conservatives are only defending seven wards this year; following a by-election gain in Coxford ward, Labour are defending the other nine wards.
Also on the Hampshire coast, the Conservatives are firmly in control of Fareham and Havant councils. They also control Gosport council, but not by a large majority: there are 19 Conservative councillors here against 14 Lib Dems and one Labour. The Lib Dems hugely punch above their weight here in vote terms: the 2021 votes here fell 51% to the Conservatives, 24% to the Lib Dems and 22% to Labour, which England’s first-past-the-post system translated into eleven seats for the Conservatives, six Lib Dems and a Labour wipeout. The whole council is up for election this year with new ward boundaries and a reduction from 34 to 28 councillors; given that sort of profile it’s very difficult to predict what will happen here, but if this column had to make a prediction it would be for a continued Conservative majority in Gosport.
We finish with Hampshire by travelling offshore to Portsmouth, the city located on its own island in the Solent. The Conservatives are the largest party on Portsmouth council with 17 seats, but the city is run by a minority Lib Dem administration with 15 seats; the remaining councillors are 7 Labour and 3 independents. The Lib Dems went backwards on Portsmouth council in 2021, but the ward map is easier for them on this occasion; a repeat of last year’s results would see the Liberal Democrats gain two seats from Labour to become the largest party, while the Conservatives are under pressure from an independent challenge in the volatile council-estate ward of Paulsgrove. Portsmouth is one of the few remaining councils where Andrew’s Previews has never covered a by-election in detail; this column has been going in some form for almost twelve years now, so the city council must be doing something right.
In West Sussex we have elections for half of Adur council and one-third of Crawley and Worthing councils. Adur (based on the coastal strip towns between Worthing and Hove) saw a good Conservative performance last year and the party is not in serious danger there. The other two are much more interesting.
Crawley council has had an unstable situation for some time now. The council had been under Labour control for some years with small majorities, before finally tipping into No Overall Control at the 2021 election. The Conservatives are now the largest party with 18 of the 36 seats, but the 17-strong Labour group has remained in control thanks to an alliance with the single independent councillor and the mayoral casting vote. One Labour loss here will result in a Conservative majority, and Labour are defending two seats this year which voted Conservative last year. The councillors up for election in Crawley were last elected in 2019 when the current ward boundaries were introduced.
Five years ago, the seaside resort of Worthing had no Labour councillors. This column covered the election of the first Labour councillor there, at the Marine ward by-election in August 2017. A full electoral cycle later, the once-large Conservative majority has disappeared to the extent that Labour are now the largest party on the council: they hold 17 seats against 17 Conservatives (who run the town as a minority), two Lib Dems, a Green and an independent. We have the realistic prospect of Labour going from nothing to majority in Worthing in less than five years.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is what appears to be poor vote distribution by the Conservatives and excellent targeting by Labour, which allows Labour to punch above their weight. In the 2021 Worthing elections the Conservatives polled 51% against Labour’s 41%, but the two parties won six wards each with the remaining ward going Lib Dem. One is fast-moving demographic change. Worthing is not your typical Sussex-by-the-Sea elephant’s graveyard: the town has diversified its economy to give itself a year-round economic base, and this has attracted people of working age to move here as the cost of living in Brighton has become unaffordable. And one is incompetence on the part of the Conservatives: as this column related last December, one of the Conservative councillors in Worthing was forced to resign last autumn after he was linked to a far-right group, and the resulting by-election in Marine ward (again) was lost to Labour.
This year the Conservatives are defending eight seats plus a casual vacancy in Castle ward, and Labour have seats to defend on Worthing council for the first time: four of them. If they can play defence as well as attack, and repeat their 2021 result, then Labour will gain two wards from the Conservatives and win an overall majority on Worthing council for the first time.
Another Sussex-by-the-Sea town is Hastings, which is the only council holding elections today in East Sussex. The Conservatives made significant gains here last year to sharply cut the Labour majority on Hastings council: there are now 18 Labour councillors, 12 Conservatives and 2 Greens. Two Labour losses would tip the council into No Overall Control, and the party lost five seats last year.
The only other East Sussex by-election this year is a by-election to Brighton and Hove council which forms the first half of a double-header. We’re in Rottingdean Coastal here, a ward at the eastern end of the Brighton and Hove council area which covers the villages of Ovingdean, Rottingdean and Saltdean, together with the Brighton Marina and Roedean School, a girls’ boarding school which isn’t large enough to have a significant effect on the ward’s census return. Two current MPs are Old Roedeanians, the Conservatives’ Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) and the Lib Dems’ Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon). Roedean School lies on the top of the South Downs cliffedge, and much of this ward is within the South Downs National Park.
Rottingdean Coastal has normally been a safe Conservative ward this century, but the Tories lost one of the three seats here in 2019 to independent candidate Bridget Fishleigh who topped the poll; Labour weren’t that far behind the Conservative slate that year either. The by-election is defended by the Conservatives following the resignation of councillor Joe Miller, who first came to the attention of this column in 2013 when he contested a by-election in the neighbouring East Brighton ward at the age of 18. Miller had served as a councillor for this ward since 2015, and in 2019 he was re-elected here at the same time as being elected to the neighbouring Lewes council. He was the Conservative candidate for the local seat of Brighton Kemptown in the 2019 general election, and briefly served as deputy leader of Lewes council.
Miller resigned both his Brighton and Hove, and Lewes council seats in March for personal reasons, citing that he was getting married, was moving away from the area and wanted to concentrate on his consultancy business. He has denied that his resignations were connected to a drink-driving charge for which he is currently awaiting trial. The Lewes council by-election to replace Miller has been scheduled for next week and will be covered by Andrew’s Previews then; for the Rottingdean Coastal by-election the defending Conservative candidate Lynda Hyde is opposed by independent candidates Stephen White and Alison Wright, Robert McIntosh for Labour, Libby Darling for the Green Party and Stewart Stone of the Lib Dems.
Moving northwards into Surrey, we can look at the wreckage from some appalling sets of local election results on the part of the Surrey Conservatives in recent years. The party still has safe-looking majorities on Runnymede, and Reigate and Banstead councils; but Mole Valley is now controlled by the Liberal Democrats, Elmbridge (most of which is the constituency of the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab) has reverted to a coalition of the numerous Residents’ Associations and the Lib Dems, and Tandridge council at the eastern end of the county is now run by independent and residents’ councillors. The map above is of Woking council which is on a knife-edge, with the minority Conservative administration holding 13 seats against 12 Lib Dems, 3 Labour and 2 independents. A repeat of the 2021 results there would see the Lib Dems gain two seats to become the largest party.
Finally in this region, we come to the two councils in Kent which hold thirds elections. One of these is Tunbridge Wells where the ruling Conservative administration has been treated by its voters in recent years with, for want of a better word, disgust. In 2015 the Conservatives won a clean sweep here with 17 seats out of a possible 17; six years later they have lost control of the council, and a subsequent by-election loss has left the minority Conservative administration with 21 seats against 12 Lib Dems, 6 councillors from the Tunbridge Wells Alliance, 5 Labour and 3 independents. The Liberal Democrats can expect gains of around three seats if last year’s performance is repeated.
Maidstone, however, swung the other way in 2021 with the Conservatives gaining an overall majority, partly thanks to a split in the local Lib Dems; there are now 29 Conservatives, 11 Lib Dems, 7 independents, 5 councillors from the Maidstone Group (a Lib Dem splinter), and 3 Labour. The opposition parties will need to do much better than last year in order to stem further losses.
Our last council by-election today is to Sevenoaks council, in the west of the county. Fawkham and West Kingsdown ward is located in the North Downs, either side of the M20 motorway as it approaches the Great Wen. This is a ward associated with high speeds. Lizzy Yarnold, the most successful Olympic skeleton athlete of all time, grew up in West Kingsdown; also in West Kingsdown is the Brands Hatch racing circuit, which hosted the Formula 1 British Grand Prix in even years from 1964 to 1986.
Brands Hatch was also used as a venue in the 2012 London Paralympics, hosting cycling events. Appropriately enough, two gold medals were won here by the motorsport driver Alex Zanardi, who had raced rather more powerful machines around the track here both before and after losing his legs in 2001. Following that accident Zanardi had competed at Brands Hatch on a number of occasions in the World Touring Car Championship, finishing fourth and third in the two 2008 races.
Fawkham and West Kingsdown’s elections are normally rather more sedate affairs. The ward is safe Conservative as a rule, but the party did lose one of the three seats here to an independent candidate in 2019. Long-serving Conservative councillor Faye Parkin passed away in January. Emily Bulford will attempt to defend her seat for the Tories; the Greens (who were the only other party to stand here in 2019) have not returned, so Bulford’s opposition comes from Jordan Selvey for Labour and Tristan Ward for the Lib Dems.
There are no local elections this year on the Isle of Wight.
We now turn to the three parts of Great Britain where the whole of local government is up for election, starting with the 32 boroughs in Greater London. The Local Government Boundary Commission has been hard at work here over the last cycle, and most boroughs will introduce new ward maps for this election which makes comparisons with previous years rather difficult. The maps below are for the 2018 election results which use the old wards.
The 2018 London borough elections saw the Labour party put in a good performance. They won overall majorities in 21 boroughs, compared to seven Conservative and three Lib Dem councils. The only hung council in the capital is Havering, which in 2018 returned 25 Conservatives, 23 councillors from various Residents Associations, 5 Labour and an independent. Havering is the eastern end of Greater London, taking in Romford, Upminster and a number of former GLC overspill estates which used to have a significant populist right vote. In many ways this is the least metropolitan of the London boroughs, and all other things being equal we might expect it to behave more like the Essex borough of Thurrock which it borders. As we saw earlier Thurrock has a large Conservative majority now, but on the other hand Thurrock doesn’t have organised Residents Associations. The minority Conservative administration in Thurrock may well get the gains they need for a majority, but this is a rather unpredictable council.
The neighbouring Redbridge council has seen major demographic change in this century, resulting in it swinging a mile to the left politically. Redbridge had a Conservative majority continuously until 1994 and again from 2002 to 2009, but Labour won a majority here for the first time in 2014 and increased their lead to 51–12 at the 2018 elections. This council is unlikely to be in play this time, but there could be problems for the council leader Jas Athwal who is seeking re-election in Mayfield ward: the poll there has had to be postponed until 26 May after one of the Conservative candidates died, meaning that Athwal will not be able to participate in the council’s annual meeting the previous week.
Elsewhere in East London proper we have two mayoral elections to report on. Newham council, covering West Ham and East Ham, is changing quickly with the redevelopment of the former industrial and dockland areas along the Thames and the Olympic site in the Lea Valley. This is yet to feed through into elections, where Labour have held every council seat continuously since 2010 and have also held the Newham mayoralty since its creation in 2002. The 2018 Newham mayoral election saw Labour’s new candidate Rokhsana Fiaz win with 73% of the vote in the first round, and it would be foolish to bet against her securing a second term this time. Fiaz is opposed by Attic Rahman for the Conservatives, Saleyha Ahsan for the Lib Dems, Simeon Ademolake for the Christian Peoples Alliance (which once had councillors in Newham), Lois Austin for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Robert Callender for the Green Party and independent candidate Mehmood Mirza. For the council election, it might be worth noting that the long-standing Newham redwash was broken here in last year’s London mayor election where the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey carried Custom House ward.
Crossing the Lea from Newham we come to the 21st Century Rotten Borough of Tower Hamlets, which looks set to be just as rotten this time round. I regret to report that Lutfur Rahman, the monstrously corrupt former mayor who was ejected by the Election Court in 2015 for the most fraudulent UK election campaign of modern times, has now served his five-year disqualification and he wants his old job back. The 2018 local elections here returned 42 Labour councillors, 2 Conservatives and one councillor (Rabina Khan) from the Peoples Alliance of Tower Hamlets, the more moderate of the two factions the former Lutfurite councillors had split into. In the mayoral election Labour’s John Biggs, who won the by-election after Lutfur Rahman’s disqualification, led in the first round with 48% of the vote against 17% for Rabina Khan of PATH and 14% for Ohid Ahmed of Aspire, the more hardline Lutfurite faction; the runoff saw Biggs defeat Khan by the wide margin of 73–27. Aspire have since won two by-elections to the council and clearly have political momentum here.
John Biggs is seeking re-election for a third term as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Rabina Khan has wound up the Peoples Alliance of Tower Hamlets and joined the Liberal Democrats, who have nominated her as their mayoral candidate. Fasten your seatbelts, as Lutfur Rahman is back as the Aspire candidate. Also standing are Elliott Weaver for the Conservatives, Hugo Pierre for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and independent candidates Pamela Holmes and Andrew Wood (Wood is one of the outgoing Conservative councillors).
To the north of Tower Hamlets we have a third mayoral election in Hackney, another very safe Labour council but this time with little history of recent electoral fraud. The 2018 council elections here returned 52 Labour councillors and 5 Conservatives, who have a base in the Hasidic enclave of Stamford Hill. The Labour mayor Philip Glanville, who won a by-election in September 2016 after the previous mayor went off to work for Sadiq Khan, won re-election in the first round with a 66–11 lead over the Conservatives. Glanville is seeking a second full term as Mayor of Hackney; the Conservatives have changed candidate to Oliver Hall; and also standing are Zoë Garbett for the Greens, Helen Baxter for the Lib Dems and Gwenton Sloley for a left-wing outfit called Hackney People Before Profit.
Further up the Lea Valley a mention is due for Enfield council. This has a large Labour majority — the 2018 elections here returned 46 Labour councillors against 17 Conservatives — but the Conservatives have put in some very good performances in by-elections since 2018. If Labour are having a worse night than expected this might be one to watch.
Conversely, it Labour have a better night than expected then we should keep an eye on the neighbouring Barnet council. This was very close in 2014 but the Conservatives increased their majority in 2018, winning 38 seats against 25 for Labour. It may not be a coincidence that Barnet has a very large Jewish population. The new ward boundaries here are thought to be more favourable to Labour, but they will need to have mended their bridges with the local Jewish communities to make progress.
Next to Barnet lies another closely-fought outer London council: the borough of Harrow, which Labour have controlled since 2010 on fairly small majorities. The 2018 elections here returned 35 Labour councillors against 28 Conservatives, with the Labour party polling the most votes in the borough for the first time this century. Harrow has a fairly large Hindu population, a demographic which has swung to the Conservatives recently, and the borough returned large Conservative leads in last year’s London mayor and assembly elections.
One other outer London council which might be worth keeping an eye on is Hounslow. I highlight this for the same reason as Enfield: there’s a large Labour majority here which should continue, but Labour have had some distinctly unimpressive by-election results in the last term.
There is some chatter online about the Labour campaign in Westminster. This was very close in vote terms in 2018, when the Conservatives polled 42% in that city against 40% for Labour, but the Labour vote is poorly distributed and this translated into a 41–19 lead on the council for the Conservatives. New ward boundaries may have reduced some of that Conservative advantage, but this is still a difficult mound to climb.
Labour have better prospects over the river in the land where Normal Rules Do Not Apply, the borough of Wandsworth. The Labour party actually topped the poll in the 2018 Wandsworth elections with 38.6% against 38.1% for the Conservatives, but the aggressively low-tax Conservative administration which has run the borough for decades continued to defy political gravity: the Conservatives won 33 seats against 26 for Labour and one independent. Labour have performed very well here at other levels of government since 2018: the Putney constituency was the only seat Labour gained from the Conservatives at the 2019 general election, and Labour carried the borough in the 2021 Mayor and Assembly elections. In that particular context it doesn’t hurt that Wandsworth is Sadiq Khan’s home borough. Could this be the year that the spell cast by the Wandsworth Conservatives is finally broken?
Next to Wandsworth is the borough of Merton, based on Morden and Wimbledon, which has a small Labour majority: the 2018 election returned 34 Labour councillors, 17 Conservatives, 6 Lib Dems and 3 residents’ councillors. The opposition councillors are concentrated in the Wimbledon parliamentary seat, which is a fascinating marginal where the Lib Dems had a go in 2019 and came up just short of defeating the Conservative MP. The Labour majority should continue, but if the Lib Dems can maintain their momentum we could see some wild seat changes here.
The Lib Dems are under some pressure to the south of Merton in the borough of Sutton, which they have controlled continuously since the 1990s. Sutton is not like the nearby Lib Dem-controlled boroughs of Kingston and Richmond, in that those are places where the elite live whereas Sutton is much more normal suburbia with a better appeal for the Johnson brand of Conservatism. The 2018 elections here returned 33 Lib Dem councillors, 18 Conservatives and 3 independents; the winning Lib Dem vote share was rather low (38%, against 35% for the Conservatives) and this could be an unpredictable council. A rather large proportion of the Sutton Lib Dem group isn’t seeking re-election this year, which may or may not be indicative of something.
There is also a large amount of councillor turnover in neighbouring Kingston upon Thames council, where any Lib Dem backslide could be embarrassing as most of this borough is the constituency of the party leader Sir Ed Davey. For those who remember last year, when the Official Monster Raving Loony Party’s deputy leader Jason “Chinners” Chinnery pulled a stunt worthy of the Turner Prize by getting 13 Loony candidates nominated at a single council by-election, I regret to report that the sequel — as often happens with sequels — hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations. The Loonies have nominated four candidates for three seats in the new ward of Chessington South and Malden Rushett. It probably doesn’t help that in this context that last year’s special COVID rules, which temporarily reduced the number of signatures required for council election nominations in England from ten to two, have now expired.
Next to Sutton we have the disaster area of Croydon council, which went bust in a very public way during the 2018–22 term after going all-in on a town centre redevelopment which fell through. Possibly as a reaction to this, a referendum in Croydon last October returned a very large vote in favour of converting the borough to the elected mayoral system. The 2018 elections here returned 41 Labour councillors against 29 Conservatives, but for the mayoral election it will be more important to look at the votes cast, in which Labour had a slender lead over the Conservatives of 44–39. The Labour lead was bigger in the 2019 general election, when Croydon’s three constituencies voted 49% Labour and 38% Conservative. However, it was a different story in the London mayor and assembly elections last year, held after the council ran out of money: Shaun Bailey led Sadiq Khan 42–36 across the borough, while Croydon voted 38% Conservative, 35% Labour and 11% Green in the London Members ballot for the Assembly. Croydon is quite a polarised borough, so vote changes here tend to be low.
For the inaugural Croydon mayoral election the Labour candidate is Val Shawcross, a former leader of the council (1997–2000) who served from 2000 to 2016 as the London Assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark. Shawcross was appointed CBE back in 2002 for services to local government. The Conservatives have selected Jason Perry, who leads the Conservative group on the council and has been a Croydon councillor since 1994. Also standing are Peter Underwood for the Green Party, Richard Howard for the Liberal Democrats, failed London mayoral candidate Farah London for the “Taking the Initiative Party”, failed Celebrity Big Brother contestant and independent candidate Winston McKenzie who would appear to have finally run out of political parties who are prepared to have him as a member, ex-Conservative figure and independent candidate Gavin Palmer, and ex-Conservative MP, ex-Labour councillor and independent candidate Andrew Pelling.
We finish our tour of London with the final mayoral election in the capital, which takes place in the south-eastern borough of Lewisham. Labour won a clean sweep in Lewisham borough in 2018, carrying all 54 council seats and the mayoralty, and the party defended a parliamentary by-election in Lewisham East shortly afterwards without fuss. Labour’s Damian Egan won the mayoralty in the first round with 54% of the vote, against 13% for the Conservatives and 10% for the Green Party.
Egan is seeking a second term as Labour Mayor of Lewisham. The Conservative candidate is Caroline Attfield, who comes to elected politics from a 35-year career in the financial sector. The Greens have selected Nick Humberstone, who came a poor third in a by-election in Lewisham’s Bellingham ward last year. Also standing are Chris Maines for the Liberal Democrats, Andy Beadle for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Maureen Martin for the Christian Peoples Alliance and independent candidate Roger Mighton.
The whole of local government in Wales is up for election this year. The Local Democracy and Boundary Commission have reviewed all 22 Welsh councils over the last five years and come up with a new set of ward boundaries for the entire country, so I warn you that comparisons with previous years may be rather difficult. A boundary review was sorely needed in many areas, as some councils were still using the electoral arrangements they got when Welsh local government was reorganised back in the 1990s. As in the London section above, the maps here show the old ward boundaries, not the new ones.
The last Welsh local elections were held in May 2017, at which Labour lost control of three councils in the Valleys: Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent. In the case of Bridgend this was compounded for Labour by the loss of the Bridgend parliamentary seat to the Conservatives in 2019. Labour continue to run Bridgend council as a minority; in 2017 they won 26 seats against 13 independents, 11 Conservatives, three Plaid Cymru councillors and a single Lib Dem.
Merthyr Tydfil council has an independent majority, with 18 independent councillors against 15 Labour. Blaenau Gwent council (above), based on Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, saw a Labour bloodbath in 2017 with the party losing 20 seats: 28 independent councillors were returned five years ago against 13 Labour and 1 Plaid. Council by-election results in the Valleys have generally been nothing to write home about for Labour over the last five years, but at a higher level the party did oust the former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in the Rhondda constituency at last year’s Senedd election. Labour are defending a large majority on the Rhondda Cynon Taf council, which covers that area.
One South Wales council to watch could be the Vale of Glamorgan. The Conservatives finished one seat short of a majority here in 2017, winning 23 seats against 14 Labour, 6 independents and 4 Plaid; however, the local party has suffered a damaging split and there are only 14 councillors left in the Conservative group. Which is rather embarrassing, given that one of those 14 is the Welsh Conservative leader Andrew R T Davies MS, who won a by-election in Rhoose in 2019. Since then the Senedd has passed a bill which bans people from serving simultaneously as councillors and MSs; this ban on dual mandates came in from May 2021. Davies was allowed to finish the last year of his term on Vale of Glamorgan council, but he is now standing down perforce.
Going into these elections the Vale is run by a coalition of Labour, the Conservative splinter group and the independent councillors for Llantwit Major. The Vale of Glamorgan parliamentary seat, which covers most of the council area with the exception of Penarth, has voted Conservative at Westminster level since 2010 but re-elected its Labour MS Jane Hutt for a sixth term of office in last year’s Senedd election. Hutt has sat continuously for the area since the creation of the original Assembly in 1999.
As well as the ban on dual mandates, the Welsh government has made some other innovations in its electoral process over the last council term. 16- and 17-year-olds, and all foreign nationals resident in Wales, became eligible to vote in Senedd and Welsh local elections last year, and this will be the first ordinary Welsh council election in all Welsh residents who have reached the age of 16 can cast a vote. Four councils — Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly and Torfaen — are running pilot schemes in which a select number of polling stations will open for early voting.
The last Senedd also passed a local government bill which, among other things, has given Welsh councils the power to convert their electoral system to proportional representation with effect from the 2027 local elections. This column is sceptical that any councils will actually choose to do that following these elections, but if any places go for this change it might be somewhere like Cardiff following a messy result. The current Cardiff council has a small Labour majority: the 2017 elections returned 40 Labour councillors, 20 Conservatives, 11 Lib Dems, 3 councillors for Plaid Cymru and an independent. The Plaid councillors have all since walked out of the party and joined Propel, a nationalist party led by ex-Plaid MS and outgoing city councillor Neil McEvoy. McEvoy saved his deposit in Cardiff West in last year’s Senedd election; Propel polled just 2.2% across the South Wales Central region, but almost half of that vote total came out of Cardiff West so it’s not impossible McEvoy could be re-elected in Fairwater ward under his new colours. The remnants of Cardiff’s Plaid branch are running a joint ticket with the Greens, under the branding “Common Good”. Labour have gone backwards here in by-elections during the last council term and they will need to work hard to avoid a hung council.
The only Welsh council with a Conservative majority is Monmouthshire, where the 2017 elections returned 25 Conservative councillors, 10 Labour, 5 independents and 3 Lib Dems. The Tories have work to do to hold this: there has been some infighting in the local Conservative group, and the Senedd Monmouth constituency (which covers almost the same area) swung to Labour in 2021 partly as a result of the outgoing Tory MS seeking re-election as an independent candidate. He polled 3.6% and finished sixth out of 10 candidates, although that was a better placing than former MP and outgoing MS Mark Reckless who ended up in 7th for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party. Reckless’ wife Catriona Brown-Reckless, incidentally, is standing as a Conservative candidate for Cardiff council in these elections; she has local government experience as a former Medway councillor (Andrew’s Previews 2016, page 254).
Rural Welsh councils tend to elect a lot of independent councillors, often without a contest, while Plaid Cymru also perform well in Welsh-speaking rural areas. One of Plaid’s major targets for this year will be Carmarthenshire council, where they finished just short of a majority in 2017: that year Plaid won 36 seats, Labour 22 (mostly in Llanelli and the Amman valley) and independents 16. This council covers all of the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr constituency represented in the Senedd by Plaid’s leader Adam Price. Carmarthenshire is currently run by a Plaid Cymru-Independent coalition, as is Ceredigion where Plaid start slightly further from a majority: the 2017 results here were 20 seats for Plaid, 13 independents, 8 Lib Dems and a single Labour councillor (in Lampeter, of all places). Pembrokeshire has a secure independent majority.
The battle for Powys could be an interesting one. This council fell hung in 2017 after a long-lasting independent majority fell apart under increasing competition from established parties. The 2017 elections returned 30 independents, 20 Conservatives, 13 Lib Dems, 7 Labour, 2 Plaid Cymru and Wales’ first-ever Green local councillor, who came through the middle of a close three-way contest in Llangors. The Greens are not defending their seat. In 2017 nominations had to be reopened in Yscir ward where no candidates stood, and the resulting by-election returned a Conservative who is included in the total above. The Conservatives actually topped the poll across Powys with 34% of the vote, although this was a slightly false position because nine independent councillors were elected unopposed. The Tory councillors are predominantly in Montgomeryshire, the Lib Dems in Breconshire and Radnorshire (a seat which the Conservatives have gained at both Westminster and Senedd level in the last three years), and Labour in Ystradgynalis and Brecon town. A shoutout is due to the Round Britain Quiz team-member and former quizmate of your columnist Myfanwy Alexander, outgoing independent councillor for Banwy ward in Montgomeryshire; boundary changes have forced her into a stiff re-election battle against two other outgoing councillors, Plaid Cymru’s Bryn Davies and independent Emyr Jones, for the new ward of Banwy, Llanfihangel and Llanwddyn. Only one of them can win.
Turning to the north coast, the remaining Plaid Cymru target is the Isle of Anglesey where they were, again, just short of a majority in 2017. The outgoing council has 14 Plaid councillors, 13 independents, 2 Labour and a Lib Dem; Plaid performed creditably in two by-elections here last year. A Plaid-Independent coalition is in place.
Gwynedd is the only council in Wales which currently has a Plaid Cymru majority, and that shouldn’t change particularly given that 28 Gwynedd councillors have been elected without a contest — that’s more unopposed returns in this year’s local elections than there are in the whole of England and Scotland put together. Not good for democracy.
We do have a full set of contested elections for the neighbouring Conwy council, which combines the Costa Geriatrica of Conwy town, Llandudno, Colwyn Bay and Abergele with a large but sparsely-populated rural interior. Conwy is a permanently hung council. In previous elections this century the Conservatives were the largest party in 2008 and independents on the other three occasions; in 2017 21 independent councillors were elected, 16 Conservatives, 10 Plaid (mostly from the interior), 8 Labour and 4 Lib Dems. An independent-Conservative alliance is in control. In the Senedd elections last year both constituencies covering the area were held by the Conservatives, who achieved a decent swing from Plaid Cymru in Aberconwy while Clwyd West swung to Labour.
Denbighshire council, which stretches south from Rhyl and Prestatyn all the way to Llangollen, is even more balanced. The 2017 elections here returned 16 Conservatives, 13 Labour, 9 Plaid, 8 independents and a single Lib Dem. An independent-led anti-Labour coalition is in place. An MRP-based local elections poll from Electoral Calculus predicted that Labour could gain overall control here, which seems unrealistic; the Labour vote in Denbighshire is strongly concentrated in Rhyl, which isn’t large enough to outvote the rest of the council. Additionally, the Vale of Clwyd constituency (which covers most of the council area, including Rhyl) was the only Senedd constituency the Conservatives gained from Labour last year.
That same poll may be on firmer ground in forecasting a Labour gain in Flintshire, where there is much more of a track record for the party. Labour currently run Flintshire as a minority; they held majority control here until 2008, and their 2017 result (34 Labour councillors, 25 independents, 6 Conservatives and 5 Lib Dems) was only just short of a majority. Labour held both Flintshire constituencies in the Senedd election last year; Alyn and Deeside was the only North Wales constituency to stick with Labour in the 2019 Westminster election, while the Conservative MP elected that year for Delyn has since been thrown out of the party for disgraceful behaviour; he managed to avoid a recall petition only on a technicality.
Our final Welsh council is Wrexham, one of those places which those who write pieces about the decline of Labour like to talk about. The Wrexham constituency now has a Conservative MP but it was held by Labour in last year’s Senedd elections with almost no swing. The Wrexham council area covers a much larger area than the constituency, taking in areas like Ruabon, the English Maelor and the Ceiriog Valley which form the majority of the Clwyd South constituency. Clwyd South has a larger Labour majority in Senedd elections than Wrexham does, but its local elections (outside the Ruabon area) are dominated by independent candidates. Labour have never had a majority on Wrexham council this century, and in the 2017 elections independents won exactly half of the seats: 26, against 12 Labour, 9 Conservatives, 3 Plaid and 2 Lib Dems. For Labour to become the largest party here (as they were in 2012) they need to take on the independents in Wrexham town and the surrounding ex-coalfield areas, and by-election results in the 2017–22 term don’t give much indication of that happening.
Here’s a dirty little secret I’ve not been telling you in this piece so far. Nearly all council majorities in England and Wales are based on a minority of the actual votes cast. This is not the case in Scotland, where the revolutionary idea of proportional representation is used for local elections meaning that minority votes result in the minority representation they deserve. The 2022 Scottish local elections are the fourth ordinary polls since PR was introduced in 2007.
The use of PR means that every Scottish council on the mainland is hung, after Labour lost their majorities in Glasgow and a number of other central belt councils in 2017. Cross-party working is and will remain the order of the day, and a wide variety of coalitions and other arrangements are in effect across Scotland’s 32 councils, generally of an anti-Conservative or anti-SNP nature. This includes a Labour-Conservative coalition in Aberdeen, which got the entire Aberdeen Labour group suspended from the party for an arrangement which the national Labour leadership didn’t like.
The Scottish National Party lead Scotland’s other three big cities. They run Glasgow in coalition with the Greens and carried every Glasgow ward in 2017. Edinburgh (above) has an SNP-Labour coalition, and the SNP rule alone in Dundee (below), where they are very close to a majority. As you can see from these maps, Labour didn’t top the poll in a single ward in any of these cities in 2017.
The big winners from the May 2017 local elections in Scotland were the Conservatives, who doubled their vote share from 2012 and more than doubled their share of councillors to become the second-largest party in Scottish local government. This mostly came at the expense of Labour, with the SNP standing still. The good Tory performance was an early pointer of the major gains for the Scottish Conservatives at the 2017 general election five weeks later, although many of those gains have since gone back to the SNP at Westminster level.
Allan Faulds, the Scottish local elections pundit who runs the strongly-recommended Ballot Box Scotland blog, has commissioned his own poll of these local elections. With fieldwork from 24th to 28th March, Survation found first preferences of 44% for the SNP, 23% for Labour and 18% for the Conservatives, which is a big improvement on 2017 for the SNP, a significant improvement for Labour and a big fall for the Conservatives and independent candidates. Faulds has his own take on the poll (here; he correctly points out that the independent figure of 1% in the poll is too low, given that independent candidates polled 10% of the first preferences in 2017 and have strong representation in the more rural parts of Scotland.
As with previous years, the Scottish local election votes will be counted by machine starting on Friday morning. Votes at 16 apply in Scotland, and remember to number the candidates your ballot paper in order of preference.
We finally come to what may well be the most consequential of all the elections taking place today: the seventh general election for the Northern Ireland Assembly since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This is the first Stormont election in over five years, because the last election was a snap poll in March 2017 after the Northern Ireland government was brought down by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
The 2017 Assembly election was the first not to return a Unionist majority. Unionist parties won 40 of the 90 seats (28 for the Democratic Unionist Party, 10 from the Ulster Unionist Party, 1 from the Traditional Unionist Voice, and an independent), nationalist parties won 39 (27 for Sinn Féin and 12 for the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and 11 MLAs were returned from other parties (8 from the Alliance Party, 2 from the Greens, and a People Before Profit MLA who in practice is a Nationalist but does not describe himself as such). Shortly afterwards the 2017 Westminster general election saw the Democratic Unionist Party win every Unionist seat and Sinn Féin (who do not turn up to Westminster) win every Nationalist seat, leaving the DUP with an effective monopoly on Northern Ireland’s representation and holding the balance of power in a hung parliament. With the May Westminster government losing all its leverage over the DUP to force them into forming a government with Sinn Féin, Stormont remained suspended until January 2020 when a new Northern Ireland Executive was finally formed. Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party became First Minister with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister.
Foster resigned as DUP leader in 2021 resulting in a chaotic series of leadership changes within the party. Paul Givan eventually succeeded Foster as First Minister, before collapsing the Executive in February in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit agreement. The Protocol, agreed by the British government ahead of Brexit in January 2020, means that Northern Ireland remains part of the EU customs union without border controls with the Republic of Ireland; the consequence of this is a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The Democratic Unionist Party will be led into the 2022 election not by Givan but by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who is not currently a member of the Assembly: he sits in Westminster as the MP for Lagan Valley. A recent change to the rules means that Sir Jeffrey will not have to vacate his Westminster seat if he is elected to Stormont.
Northern Ireland is a difficult place to poll well, but two companies have tried their hands at political polling here over the last year: Lucid Talk run a regular poll series for the Belfast Telegraph, while Social Market Research have performed three polls over the last year for the University of Liverpool and the Irish News. All polls since October 2020 have shown Sinn Féin as the largest party, often with a sizeable lead, with the DUP significantly down on the 28% they polled in March 2017 as they lose ground to other Unionist parties. This would suggest that Michelle O’Neill is on track to become the first Nationalist First Minister, with Sir Jeffrey as her deputy if he fancies that.
There is no by-election evidence to confirm or refute this polling, because vacancies in the Assembly and on Northern Ireland’s local councils are filled by a co-option system without going back to the voters. The last local elections in the six counties were in early May 2019, with Sinn Féin breaking even and the DUP, UUP and SDLP losing ground; the main gainers were the Alliance Party. Alliance then had their best-ever result at the last European Parliament elections three weeks later, placing third on first preferences and winning a seat at the expense of the UUP. The polling evidence suggests that these gains for the Alliance are not a blip.
The last elections of any sort in Northern Ireland were the Westminster elections of December 2019, at which the Democratic Unionist Party lost two seats: Belfast North to Sinn Féin and Belfast South to the SDLP. The SDLP also recovered the Foyle constituency which they had lost to Sinn Féin two years earlier, while the idiosyncratic North Down seat transferred its allegiance from an independent Unionist to the Alliance Party. The DUP benefited from a number of Unionist pacts in December 2019, notably the absence of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party, so their vote share in December 2019 (31%) is not comparable with the Assembly polling.
The Assembly uses the same electoral boundaries as the 18 Westminster constituencies, with each constituency returning five MLAs by proportional representation. Counting will start on Friday morning. Remember to number the candidates your ballot paper in order of preference.
Before wrapping up this preview, it’s time for us to pause and remember those elected representatives who passed away during the municipal year 2021–22. The toll of the Grim Reaper falls indiscriminately on young and old, local government veterans and neophytes, councillors of all parties and none. This column has told the stories of many of these dedicated public servants over the last twelve months: but there were some councillors whose seats were left vacant after their deaths without a by-election, and they are listed here. Rest in peace.
Sir David Amess MP
James Brokenshire MP
Jack Dromey MP
Dame Cheryl Gillan MP
Gordon Dunne MLA
Christopher Stalford MLA
Brian Adams, Waverley
Bob Adams, Lincolnshire CC and South Kesteven
Colin Aherne, Hammersmith and Fulham
Javed Akhunzada, Hounslow
Richard Alcock, Staffordshire Moorlands
Ann Allen, Kent CC and Dartford
Rita Amos, Wyre
Peter Argyle, West Berkshire
Kathleen Arnold, Newark and Sherwood
Brian Avery, Durham
Stephie Barber, Lancaster
Howard Barrett, Merthyr Tydfil
Carol Baume, Milton Keynes
Tashi Bhutia, Medway
Tom Blane, West Lancashire
Gill Bolton, Charnwood
Nick Bowler, Medway
Alan Brown, East Dunbartonshire
John Browne, Preston
Craig Cannell, Essex CC and Rochford
Paul Castleman, Luton
John Clark, Ryedale
Paul Clark, Hertfordshire CC and North Hertfordshire
Peter Clarke, Monmouthshire
Mary Cooke, Bromley
Nicholas Cope, Colchester
Andy Corkhill, Wirral
Ray Cornell, Horsham
Linda Crossley, Pendle
John Denholm, Carlisle
Tejinder Singh Dhami, Ealing
Bill Dick, Castle Point
Rob Dix, South Tyneside
Maureen Dobson, Nottinghamshire CC and Newark and Sherwood
Robert Eaton, Oadby and Wigston
Brian Edwards, South Staffordshire
Neil Eustace, Birmingham
Bill Evans, South Ribble
Mike Exton, South Kesteven
Mohammed Fazal, Birmingham
Anthony Finn, Barnet
Rob Foote, Epsom and Ewell
Sir Roger Gifford, City of London (Alderman)
Ray Glindon, North Tyneside
June Goodchild, Middlesbrough
Ratilal Govind, Leicester
Gary Gray, Glasgow
David Greenhalgh, Bolton
Ros Groves, Liverpool
Tony Heath, Warwick
Tom Heggie, Highland
Paul Hibbert-Greaves, East Lindsey
Penny Holbrook, Birmingham
Harry Howard, Halton
Glanmor Hughes, Mid Devon
Steve Iles, Medway
Willie Innes, East Lothian
Peter Isherwood, Waverley
Tim Jeeves, Liverpool
Jonathan Johnson, Rother
Alan Jones, Torfaen
Dave King, East Lothian
Richard Lasota, Wychavon
William Lisseter, East Riding
Anita Lower, Newcastle upon Tyne
Jackie Loveridge, Telford and Wrekin
Brenda Loynes, Hartlepool
Robert McKendrick, North Lanarkshire
Andrew Macnaughton, Mid Sussex
Mary Madams, Spelthorne
Mark Maddox, Runnymede
Paul Maiden, Wigan
Steven Markiewicz, Welwyn Hatfield
Christine Melia, South Ribble
Dorothy Mitchell, Elmbridge
Vina Mithani, Harrow
Chris Mote, Harrow
Linda Murphy, Winchester
Mohammed Naeem, Calderdale
Jonathan Nicholls, Warwick
Faye Parkin, Sevenoaks
John Pierce, Tower Hamlets
Danny Purton, Harlow
Ian Quance, Exeter
Ian Ramon, Highland
Mark Roberts, Durham
Chris Robbins, Waltham Forest
Lewis Rose, Derbyshire Dales
Harbans Singh Sarohi, Walsall
Keith Savage, High Peak
Stewart Scothern, Lancaster
Paul Scott, Northumberland
Trish Shrapnel, Huntingdonshire
David Simmons, Adur
Alan Smith, South Somerset
John Smith, West Suffolk
Lord Smith of Leigh, Wigan
Clive Smitheram, Epsom and Ewell
Malcolm Spalding, Kensington and Chelsea
Julian Stanyer, Tunbridge Wells
Mair Stephens, St Ishmael
Jim Swanson, East Lindsey
Valerie Tarbitt, Cumbria CC and Carlisle
John Thomas, Leicester
Anita Thorpe, Wigan
Doris Turner, Sunderland
David Vickers, Dudley
Raymond Walker, Salford
Vanessa Walker, East Riding
Norman Waller, Harrogate
Malcolm Watson, Chelmsford
Alan Wedderkopp, Somerset CC and Somerset West and Taunton
Gerald White, Ashford
Phil White, Bridgend
Dave Williams, Flintshire
Reginald Williams, South Staffordshire
Clayton Willis, Rhondda Cynon Taf
Debbie Woodward, North East Lincolnshire
The Britain Elects team will, as usual, be working their socks off to bring you cold hard ward-by-ward results as they come in from the counts on Thursday night and all through Friday. If you liked the interactive map from last year, it’s coming back; watch the Britain Elects Twitter for links. Be prepared for shocks. If there’s anything I’ve learned from all these years following local elections, it’s that there is always one result which makes my jaw drop when I see it come in.
Those results will be the result of a lot of hard work by 200 Returning Officers and their poll and count staff, who do a thankless job that doesn’t just last for one day a year. There is a fantastic amount of behind-the-scenes work that’s needed to put this show on for your benefit: polling day is just the tip of the administrative iceberg, representing the culmination of months of planning. Your council election teams have no margin for error: it all has to go right, every single time. This column sends its best wishes to everybody working on this election for a smooth and trouble-free poll and count.
In terms of the counting itself, we will have more overnight results than last year but many councils, including every district in Wales and Scotland, have decided to stick with Friday counts. The Press Association have published their usual list of estimated declaration times (link), although anybody who has followed counts should know that this sort of thing is often little more than guesswork. Nonetheless, those who want to stay up late on Thursday night will need to pace themselves for the long day of result-following on Friday ahead.
Shoutouts are also due to the 21,070 candidates across England, Scotland and Wales in this most brutal form of job application. No, I am not listing you all individually; but your local candidates can be found by entering your postcode into whocanivotefor.co.uk. For the winners, perhaps: the chance to do something about those potholes rather than point glumly at them, the chance to improve their local community. For the losers: well, nobody remembers who comes second, with the exception of this column. 2022 is the 20th anniversary year for your columnist’s other electoral hobby, the Local Elections Archive Project, which will eventually get around to recording your result for posterity.
But the most important people in today’s festival of democracy are you, the voters. We have all seen in the news that there are parts of the world where democracy is not free, not fair or not existent; we have all seen in the news that there are parts of this continent where democracy is under threat. In Ukraine, local government is literally on the frontline. Democracy will only last for as long as there are people prepared to support it, prepared to participate in it, prepared to defend it, prepared to fight for it. The best way you can defend Britain’s local democracy is to take part in it. Your vote will be free, it will be fair, it will be secret, and it will count in the same way as my vote and everybody else’s vote. But if you don’t vote, your voice won’t be heard when the ballot papers tumble out of the box onto the counting table, to decide your councillors’ future — and yours. If you have a postal vote you should have received it by now; if you intend to vote at a polling station, don’t forget to go there between 7am and 10pm on Thursday. You will be most welcome. You can find your designated polling station on your polling card, or by going to wherecanivote.co.uk.
This column doesn’t just come out at election time; Andrew’s Previews is here for you all year round. Next week we resume normal service by covering two local by-elections in Surrey and Sussex. Stay tuned.
If you enjoyed these previews, there are many more like them — going back to 2016 — in the Andrew’s Previews books, which are available to buy now (link). You can also support future previews by donating to the Local Elections Archive Project (link).