Labour launched its local election campaign in Swindon on 30 March, with short, punchy speeches from Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves. Reeves opened the proceedings, asking voters if they felt better off after 13 years of Conservative rule. Starmer attacked the government, calling Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “Mr One Per Cent” and criticising its pensions tax cuts. He repeated Labour’s previously trailed pledges – 13,000 extra policemen and training for NHS staff – and promised a council tax freeze, paid for by a windfall tax on energy companies.
This followed the stealth-launch of the Conservative’s own local elections campaign on 24 March, which went largely undetected. Sunak kicked off his campaign in the West Midlands, pledging to “fight for every vote”.
The significance of both Swindon and the West Midlands is not to be understated. Labour lost Swindon to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election, and made significant gains in both constituencies there in 2017. In the West Mids, the Conservatives are hoping to hold on to their seats in Dudley and Walsall North, key red-turned-blue areas that could indicate wider feeling in the Red Wall.
[See also: Would Rishi Sunak win a fight over competence?]
May polls will not only be the first time Sunak has been put to an election, but it will also give an indication of whether Starmer’s polling lead translates into votes. The question is: how bad will it be for the Tories?
At a media briefing earlier this month, the polling guru and Conservative peer Robert Hayward said the Conservatives are at around 27 per cent in the polls and would need to jump to 32 to have any hope of picking up seats. But all is not lost for the Tories: anger in the party’s heartlands over partygate and the Conservative leadership turmoil seems to be “diminishing”, he said.
Hayward suggested that middle-class areas are swinging back towards the Conservatives, placing doubt over the Liberal Democrats’ expected gains. The Lib Dems tend to do particularly well in local elections, and areas of interest for the Conservative/Lib Dem tussle will be Surrey, Hertfordshire, Warwickshire and Cheshire.
One shadow minister, who is campaigning in the Red Wall, said the Tories are targeting seats that went independent in the last local elections,“so they have more headroom to make gains in parts of the country where Labour can’t go”. But they also explained that the government’s attempts to ramp up the small boats crisis was not being felt on the doorsteps. “It’s all potholes, poos and dustbins, the same as it always is.”
Herein lie the limitations of local elections. Those who take part (turnout is usually low) often do so because they more concerned about what is happening locally. Certain councils will retain or lose seats simply by virtue of whether they are deemed to be doing a good job, rather than strength of support for a specific party nationally.
But they are still significant. By assessing the proportion of lost and gained votes for each party, pollsters should be able to make fairly accurate predictions of the country’s mood. Think of May’s election as a practice run for the general, and a chance for each party to refocus.
Labour is learning that the tricky thing about a poll lead is that you have to maintain it. If the Conservatives don’t fare as badly as previously expected, the challenge for Labour will be proving its appeal is not solely dependent on the Tories’ failures.