On 5 May, 399 council seats are up for election in 20 local council areas in the East of England. These local elections decide who controls a range of local services, from planning and housing to recycling and transport. Some people will vote on local issues, others will vote for a party, (and most will not vote at all!). Turnout is likely to be highest in places where there is some particular local issue or dispute, perhaps about planning or the local NHS.
However, most candidates will have a party label, and commentators will be watching these elections for signs of how people might vote in the next Parliamentary election. So what kind of change can we expect, in control of local councils, or in signals about how the next general election might go?
- 6 April candidates list published
- 14 April last date to register to vote
- 19 April last date to apply for a postal vote
- 5 May election day
The political balance
The elections are scattered across the region. In three cases, the whole Council is up for election. Of these, the LibDems control St Albans and Cambridge with clear majorities, and only a major surge in Conservative support could dislodge them. In Huntingdonshire, the main opposition to the incumbent Conservatives are Independents, and Labour and LibDem support is tiny, so a change would be surprising.
In the other 17 councils only one third of councillors are elected this year:
- 8 are controlled by Conservatives,
- 4 are controlled by Labour,
- 1 is controlled by Liberal Democrats,
- 4 have no single party in control.
In four councils, Independents hold more than 20 percent of the seats, rising to 49 percent in Castle Point in Essex, but the Conservatives have large majorities in all these.
All recent national polling suggests that if there is any general swing, it will be away from the Conservatives. If this happens, it will be interesting to see it there is any pattern to change in favour of either Labour or Liberal Democrats, or any evidence of tactical voting by their supporters.
Although there are signs of growing support for the Greens in some parts of the region, they only hold 22 seats on these councils, and Norwich (where the Greens lead the opposition) is the only place where they hold more than three seats.
In eight areas nothing is likely to change, because political allegiance is very strong. In all these, one party has a clear majority on the council and the sitting MP (of the same party) also has a very large majority.
Ten Councils to watch
This leaves ten councils where results are worth watching. In five of these, control of the council might change and all ten are in parliamentary constituencies which are electoral targets for either Labour or LibDems.
In parliamentary elections tactical voting may be important, with Labour, Green and LibDem voters willing to switch votes for the party most likely to defeat the Conservative. For that reason in the commentary below we show the ‘progressive’ vote share (the combined Labour, LibDem and Green vote) in the 2019 general election.
Peterborough is currently led by a Conservative/Independent coalition, but a small swing would put Labour in control. The sitting Conservative MP has a majority of only 2,580, and with the 2019 progressive vote share at 48 percent, and a small LibDem presence, this constituency leads Labour’s target list in the region.
Watford is held by the LibDems, with Labour in opposition, and no Conservative members. The current Conservative MP has a majority of only 4,433, and with a 2019 progressive vote share of 54 percent, and a small LibDem vote in 2019, this is also high on Labour’s target list.
Norwich is a firmly Labour city, with Greens in opposition, a few LibDems and no Conservatives. The city includes two constituencies. Norwich South is the only Labour held Westminster constituency in Norfolk. By contrast, Norwich North has been a Conservative seat since 2009. The current MP there has a majority of only 4,738, and with a progressive vote share of 48 percent, Norwich North is a clear Labour target seat.
Ipswich is currently controlled by Labour, with a substantial majority, and no significant change is likely at local level. The current Conservative MP has a small majority of 5,479. Given the local strength of Labour and a progressive vote share of 47 percent, this constituency is a clear Labour target.
Colchester has been ruled by a coalition since last year, when three Independents agreed to support the Conservatives following a planning dispute. Opposition is spilt between Labour and LibDems with 11 seats each, and 3 Greens. A small swing away from the Conservatives would restore the previous progressive coalition on the Council. Although the Conservative MP has a decent majority of 9,423, the progressive vote share in 2019 was 50 percent, making Colchester another Labour target seat.
North Hertfordshire is led by a Labour/LibDem coalition with a small majority, which could be consolidated. The District is split between two constituencies. North East Hertfordshire is a safe Conservative seat. However, in Hitchin and Harpenden, the Conservative has a majority of only 6,895, and a progressive vote share of 52 percent (two thirds of it LibDem) makes this a LibDem target.
St Albans is held by LibDems, and has a LibDem MP. No change is likely locally, but it shares the Hitchin and Harpenden constituency with North Hertfordshire Council (see above).
South Cambridgeshire has a clear LibDem majority, which is unlikely to change. However, it overlaps with two Conservative held constituencies: South Cambridgeshire has a small Conservative majority of 2,904 and a 54 percent progressive vote, which puts it high on the LibDems target seat list. In South East Cambridgeshire the Conservative MP has a larger majority of 11,490, but with a 48 percent progressive vote share, this too is a LibDem target.
Stevenage has a solid Labour majority on the Council which is unlikely to change. However, the local MP is a Conservative, with a modest majority of 8,562. Local strength, and a 47 percent progressive vote share in 2019, makes this a Labour target.
Welwyn Hatfield has a solid Conservative majority on the Council, and the Conservative MP is relatively secure with a majority of 10,955. The progressive vote share in 2019 was 47 percent. This is a Labour target, though the least likely to fall in this region. However it is significant because, on an even national swing, winning Welwyn Hatfield would give Labour an absolute majority in Westminster.
Southend is interesting because, in a solidly Conservative area, the Council is run by a Labour led coalition. In 2007 the Audit Commission found it to be one of the three worst managed Councils in the UK. Although Conservatives are regularly the largest party, they have lost control to a minority led coalition twice since 2000. The latest change followed a vote of no confidence in 2019. Since then, a Labour led coalition, with support from LibDems and Independents has held control with a majority of 4. So the election might return control to the Conservatives, or strengthen the current coalition. However, In Parliamentary terms nothing will change. This is solid Conservative territory. The two Conservative MPs both have majorities over 27,000.
What would signal change at Westminster?
The Election Polling website provides a lot of election data, and tools to calculate the effect of different voting patterns.
A full progressive alliance
On the basis of the 50 most recent professional opinion polls they calculate that if a general election was held today the Conservatives would lose a lot of the seats they gained in 2019. Labour would be the largest party, but still 43 seats short of a majority. So Labour could govern with support from LibDems, Greens and SNP. Assuming an even swing across the country, five seats in the East of England would change hands:
Labour with LibDems and Greens
However, a coalition involving the SNP might be difficult to agree. With a larger swing Labour could form a coalition with the LibDems and Greens alone. Two more seats would fall to Labour:
A Labour majority government
For Labour to win a working majority in Westminster would require an unprecedentedly large swing. The Conservatives would need to lose 140 seats to Labour and LibDems. If this happened three more seats would change hands in the East:
Hitchin & Harpenden