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UK Local Elections: Rishi Sunak Faces His First Electoral Test

Written by Lucie Bogaerts & Mathew Nicolson

On Thursday 4 May, millions of voters in England will have the opportunity to vote for their local councillors, followed by voters in Northern Ireland on 18 May. In England, over 8,000 seats will be up for election in 230 councils. These local elections are an important event in the democratic process, with voters determining who is in charge of public services at the local level and how they are managed. While there are no local elections in Scotland or Wales—which elected their councils to five-year terms last year—the results will serve as a significant indicator of both the political environment and the UK government’s popularity. They will also provide Rishi Sunak’s (CON~ ECR) first major electoral test as Prime Minister.

Voters in England will elect councillors to three different types of council in the nation’s convoluted local government system: unitary ‘metropolitan boroughs,’ ‘unitary councils’ and lower-tier ‘district councils,’ which govern their areas alongside upper-tier county councils.  

Council areas up for election this year. Metropolitan boroughs are shaded in pink, district councils in purple, unitary authorities in green and Northern Irish councils in teal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Mirrorme22 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Elections to these seats were last held in May 2019, shortly after the first extension to Britain’s exit from the European Union and just weeks before Prime Minister Theresa May’s (CON~ ECR) resignation. During this tumultuous period, both the UK’s major parties, the Conservatives (CON~ ECR) and centre-left Labour (LAB-S&D) suffered electoral and polling setbacks. In the May 2019 local elections, the Conservative Party lost more than 1,300 seats, while the Labour Party lost 82, with the main beneficiaries being the Liberal Democrats (RE-LDEM) and Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW-GREENS). 

Following events over the past year—including Boris Johnson’s (CON~ ECR) cascade of scandals culminating in his resignationand Liz Truss’ (CON~ ECR) disastrous 49-day premiership—Labour have assumed a leading position in the polls, exceeding 50% at points in 2022. However, there has been a tightening of the polls in recent weeks, helped in part by some recent policy successes for Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, most notably successfully negotiating the Windsor Framework with the European Union. Our polling average currently shows Labour on 44%, a narrower but still considerable 15 points ahead of the Conservatives’ 29%.

Labour (S&D) is in a much stronger position than when these local council seats were last contested in May 2019.

The local elections will also be held in the context of a cost-of-living squeeze and industrial unrest of a scale not seen in decades. The UK continues to suffer from high rates of inflation which, despite falls in other OECD countries, remains stubbornly above 10%. These conditions will likely provide additional headwinds for Conservative candidates to overcome at the ballot box.

The first results will start to come out overnight with most results confirmed throughout the day on Friday 5 May. These results will be keenly observed by each of the political parties, who will hope to secure the best possible media narrative in what may be their final major electoral contest ahead of the next national parliament election expected in 2024.

Due to King Charles III’s coronation, local elections in Northern Ireland are being postponed to the 18th of May, as the hand-counting of Single Transferable Vote would likely have gone over to the coronation weekend.  Voters in Northern Ireland will elect 462 councillors to 11 councils for four-year terms.  The election, which will begin counting the following day, takes place amid an ongoing political crisis in Northern Ireland. The right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP~NI) is currently boycotting the Northern Ireland Assembly (regional parliament) over post-Brexit arrangements for a border in the Irish Sea, despite the recent compromise between the UK and EU outlined in the Windsor Framework.

The local elections in Northern Ireland follow last year’s vote to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which saw left-wing Sinn Féin (SF-LEFT) win the most first preferences and seats—the first time a party committed to Irish reunification had ever finished in first place.  A recent LucidTalk/Belfast Telegraph poll found Sinn Féin continuing to lead with 29%, while the DUP has somewhat recovered to 25% after securing only 21% of first preferences last year.  The liberal Alliance Party (APNI-RE) poll third with 13%, followed by centre-right Ulster Unionist Party (UUP-ECR) on 11% and then centre-left Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP-S&P) on 7%—tied with right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV~NI). The outcome of the election will be closely watched on both sides of the Irish Sea as it will provide a gauge of public sentiment on key issues, most notably the Windsor Framework and the DUP’s boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly.