The 2023 UK Local Elections held on Thursday 4 May provided a vital insight into public opinion of the political parties in England; this is especially significant as the next General Election will likely take place next year. In short: these results were disastrous for the Conservative Government. The BBC reported that the Tories lost over a thousand local council seats, with the main opposition parties all making significant gains at the Government's expense. The combined spread of opposition success strongly suggests that anti-Tory tactical voting is taking place nationally. If this was repeated at a General Election, the result for the Conservatives could be catastrophic. This will likely leave many inside the Conservative Party pondering this question: where on earth do we go from here?
With their substantial losses at these elections, this result was close to a worst-case scenario for the Tories, and internal party divisions have been on full display. Allies of the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson have blamed these results on current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, arguing that Johnson was the Tories’ most electorally successful leader since Margaret Thatcher and that these results would not have happened if Johnson had not been forced to resign last year. Sunak’s allies have instead claimed that these results were caused by the damage caused to the party’s reputation by Boris Johnson’s scandal-driven exit from Downing Street in addition to the damage to the party’s economic credibility caused under Liz Truss. Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister is being credited by his supporters for mitigating the damage to the party. Regardless of who may or may not be to blame for these results, one thing is clear: the Tories are in dire political peril, and their internal divisions will not help matters.
In contrast to the dreadful result for the Tories, the opposition parties performed strongly, with the Labour Party making the most gains. Labour gained over five hundred council seats, and there was a particular success for Labour in working-class areas in the North of England (the so-called “Red Wall”), which had voted for the Conservatives in 2019 and for Brexit in the 2016 EU Referendum. These results mean that Labour is now the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, suggesting that they are well on their way to success nationally. Additionally, the estimated vote share from these elections place Labour in a nine-point lead, with Labour at 35%, the Conservatives at 26%, the Liberal Democrats at 20%, and other parties at 19%. These results caused Labour leader Keir Starmer to publicly state that Labour is on course to form a majority government at the next election. However, an outright majority is not guaranteed, and the fact that Labour did not increase their vote share from the local elections last year will make some in the party nervous. Despite this, national opinion polling in recent weeks shows Labour to be around fifteen points ahead of the Tories. Therefore, from Labour’s perspective, there is plenty to be optimistic about.
While most discussions about these results will focus on Tory losses and Labour gains, it is essential to recognize the success of both the LibDems and the Green Party. The LibDems gained over four hundred council seats. They took majority control of historically safe Tory councils in the South of England, such as Dacorum in Hertfordshire, and West Berkshire, which includes towns such as Windsor and Maidenhead. These results suggest that the LibDems are on track to become a serious third party in the UK for the first time since they partnered with the Tories in a coalition government from 2010-2015. Furthermore, the success of the LibDems in the South and Labour in the North indicates tactical voting not seen since the 1990s, with both parties capitalizing by focusing their campaigns on areas they believe they can win. The Greens also enjoyed remarkable success in these elections, gaining over two hundred council seats and taking majority control of Mid Suffolk District Council, meaning they now have a council majority for the first time. However, despite the success of the LibDems and the Greens at these local elections, achieving success at a General Election will be far more complex.
Overall, the current picture is incredibly bleak for the Conservatives. On the other hand, Labour appears on course to form a government at the next General Election. Meanwhile, the LibDems are seemingly establishing themselves as a credible third party once again; and the Greens are making noticeable progress. However, nothing is certain in politics. Circumstances can change incredibly quickly.
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