As I noted on Monday, there is an expectation from most pundits that Labour will strengthen its dominance in London. I suspect the results will be too uneven for any such clear verdict to be delivered. But even if it is, we really need to look beyond the capital, to the towns and cities across England, to assess whether Labour performance represents a serious threat. We have 21 unitary authorities and 33 metropolitan boroughs up for grabs this year. (I will consider the district councils tomorrow, where the main challenge to the Conservatives tends not to come from Labour.)
Birmingham is an obvious place to start – given both its size and that it has all its seats up for election. Labour has 62 of the 101 seats on the Council – the Conservatives 28, the Lib Dems have eight, and the Green Party one. Labour is doing a bit better in the opinion polls at present than in 2018, when the seats in Birmingham were previously contested. Then we had the Erdington by-election last month when Labour won with an increased majority. But it was a low turnout and the swing to Labour of 4.5 per cent was less than half what they would need to win an overall majority at the next General Election. Labour has a formidable campaigning machine in the city. These factors would suggest that Labour should be back with a clear majority – perhaps making modest gains.
Set against that are the Council’s serious failings – which have been detailed on this site by Cllr Meirion Jenkins. This makes predictions tricky. Perhaps if Brummies are displeased with the Conservatives nationally and with Labour locally they may look to the minor parties. However, the Conservatives are putting up a vigorous fight.
Labour launched its campaign in Bury with a visit from Sir Keir Starmer. That gave them a chance to get some further publicity over Christian Wakeford’s defection. It is also a council where all the seats are being contested. But the choice of Bury shows a lack of Labour ambition. It is already a Labour Council (28 Labour councillors to 15 for the Conservatives.) At this stage in proceedings, Labour simply holding on in places it already runs like Bury – or Birmingham – shouldn’t be seen as good enough; they should expect to be gaining territory. If Sir Keir had gone a few miles west to Bolton that would have shown a bit more confidence. That Council has 22 Conservatives, with 17 for Labour.
Derby is a unitary authority under Conservative minority control. As only a third of seats are up for election this time Labour could not expect a clear victory. But they should be aiming to win most of the seats being contested and to alter the balance of power. This is one of the few places where Reform are fielding a full set of candidates. That may be of slight help to Labour if some Conservative votes are split off.
Peterborough, similarly, has a Conservative administration while being under no overall control and only a third of seats being contested. Paul Bristow gained the Peterborough constituency for the Conservatives at the last General Election with a majority of 2,580. Labour would need to win it back with a clear majority to be in contention next time. What indication will we get next month from the tally of councillors in that proud city?
Dudley will be another important test. The Conservatives gained control last year winning 23 seats to just three for Labour. Another third of the seats are up for election this time. Will Labour get trounced again or show signs of revival?
Wakefield Council already has a big Labour majority. Not only has Imran Khan, the local MP, been expelled from the Conservatives after being convicted of sexual assault but the Conservative councillors have been in disarray. So it is likely Labour will do well here in advance of the expected Parliamentary by-election.
Even in this category of council elections, it is not always a straightforward Labour/Conservative battle. As noted on Tuesday, Sheffield is a contest that puts Labour under pressure from the Green Party and the Lib Dems. Then we have Sunderland where Labour is being challenged by the Lib Dems as well as the Conservatives.
It should also be noted that we have elections for the new unitary authority of Somerset, with all the seats being contested. That will be an important battle between Conservatives and the Lib Dems. In another unitary authority, Wokingham, only a third of seats are up. But that is another place where Conservatives will need to watch out for a Lib Dem revival.
There are other places – notably Liverpool and Manchester – where Labour are already dominant. But while the elections next month are skewed to existing Labour territory there are other areas that are more competitive and so offer a genuine challenge for them. The sense I get is that while they may consolidate here and there, they will not make dramatic gains. Yet that is what they need to be able to make a credible claim to be on course to victory at the next General Election.