UK Local Elections Primer

Another day and another election! As Brenda from Bristol would say… Not another one!

Seats up for grabs

  • Elections take place in 248 English and 11 Northern Irish councils, along with 6 mayorships
    • This equates to over 8,800 councillors being elected
    • Just over half of these are Conservative
    • Major cities being contested (elections in 1/3 of the council seats or more): Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool & Belfast
  • The last time these seats were contested was alongside the 2015 general election
  • Result in 2015: Cameron’s Conservatives wiped the floor with Labour, taking control of over 30 councils and winning over twice as many councillor seats (5,521 to 2,278)
  • It is the Conservatives who have the most to lose this time around
  • All councils in blue below have an election taking place (note: no elections in London):

Polling & Turnout

  • There have been no nationwide polls, however, if General Election polling is anything to go by, Conservatives are in for a bad night
    • Tories have fallen in national polls from 41% earlier in the year to around 23%, with Labour polling ~10 pct pts ahead
    • The emergence of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party only three weeks ago is behind this poll plummet
  • The Brexit Party will not be putting forward candidates in these local elections
    • Our friend the polling guru Sir John Curtice therefore believes many Conservatives will ‘hold their nose’ and vote for their party anyway
    • Or will they just stay at home? Turnout is normally low, and even more so in non-general election years. With Brexit not yet delivered almost three years after the electorate voted for it, will disaffected Leave voters feel there’s no point in bothering?
  • The new Remain Party, “ChangeUK”, are also not fielding candidates. It might just be that these elections end up being about local issues such as bin collections and potholes after all


  • Local election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Nuffield College, Oxford use recent data to suggest a uniform swing would lead to:
    • Conservatives -400
    • UKIP -150
    • Labour +150
    • Liberal Democrats +400
  • But they argue that incorporating recent survey data suggests a much bigger swing from Conservative to Labour:
    • Conservatives -1,100
    • UKIP -120
    • Labour +840
    • Liberal Democrats +170


  • The polls open at 7am and close at 10pm
  • Around half of the councils start to count the vote immediately, leading to results starting to come in around midnight
  • The other half start the count on Friday morning with results coming in from lunchtime until ~9pm
  • Councils to watch (time of expected result in BST in brackets):
    • BREXIT
      • (3pm) Thanet. UKIP’s heartland is currently controlled by the Conservatives but with the Brexiteers in a close second place. Will a poor showing for the Tories signal they’ve lose Leave voters completely?
      • (2am) Stockport. Minority Labour council but with a large Lib Dem contingent, this seat voted to Remain by 52% to 48% so will the LD’s benefit from anti-Brexit sentiment?
    • CON v LAB
      • (2am) Walsall. On a knife-edge with the Conservatives only just in charge. Can Labour make gains?
      • (3am) Dudley. A minority Labour administration. Can the Tories steal it back?
      • (2pm) Amber Valley. The Conservatives have had a stronghold on this council for twenty years and are defending 14 of 15 seats. Any losses would demonstrate they are losing their core vote.

Does this matter?

  • This is the first election since the UK failed to leave the EU on March 29th. As such, we should find out:
    • How much support can the two main parties still yield?
    • Is this because of Brexit, or a general shift?
    • Can the Liberal Democrats stage a comeback?
    • Are UKIP irrelevant now that Farage has created UKIP 2.0 with his Brexit Party? Or will they still yield support in the upcoming European elections and thus split the pro-Brexit vote?
    • Just how fed up is the electorate with elections?
  • It will be difficult to draw solid conclusions however, particularly with the anticipated low turnout and no representation for the two new parties
  • Of one thing we can be certain: the results will be spun to increase the divisions within the two main parties
    • Almost all Conservatives will argue that it means Theresa May “can’t go on” and “[insert name of pro-Brexit/pro-Remain candidate] must clearly take over instead”
    • The frustrated pro-People’s Vote Labour MPs will argue Corbyn needs to make their position on a second referendum explicit before heading into the European Parliamentary elections / while those loyal Corbynistas will argue their non-committal position is reaping benefits

This is just a staging post in the eventual upcoming disintegration of the party system in Westminster…

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