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Local Elections: Public Undecided as Britons Head to Polls in Over 8000 Seats

Britons (with acceptable voter identification for the first time) will be heading to the polling station on Thursday, 4 May 2023, to have their say on who should represent their local area.


The majority of seats up for election have not been contested since 2019. As polling and elections expert Sir John Curtice identified, that political environment and electoral arena seem entirely unrecognizable compared to today’s situation. When Britons in these seats cast their vote in the local elections of 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May was still (unsuccessfully) attempting to push her Brexit deal through Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party, and the country underwent a farcical European Parliament election shortly following the local elections three years after the country had expressed the will to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Both May and Corbyn were isolating large sections of their voter base, including disgruntled Brexit voters and those moderate Labour voters that disagreed with the direction the Labour Party was travelling, perceiving Corbyn’s agenda as too radical.




The BBC recently revisited the 2019 results and noted the ‘rise of the independents.’ The analysis suggests that, because of the widespread disapproval of the two established parties at the national level in 2019, a significant uptick of locally popular independent candidates was successful on polling day, putting particular local issues at the heart of their campaigns instead of being restricted to party lines and communication. Indeed, out of the approximately eight thousand seats being contested on 4 May, just under one thousand are defending independent candidates. As a collective, independents are only slightly behind the total number of Liberal Democrat-held seats being defended, widely understood as the third biggest party in England.


The Liberal Democrats often perform well at local elections, with voters often conflating national and local issues when arriving at the polling booth and exercising their democratic participation through a protest vote to illustrate their disapproval of the national governing party. This occurred in 2019, with the Conservatives losing over one thousand seats locally. Labour lost close to one hundred and the Liberal Democrats gained over seven hundred. The sheer scale of the Conservatives’ loss four years ago will cushion the mathematical laws of an even bigger loss on 4 May.


Seats up for grabs


Like today, the Tories were polling poorly prior to the 2019 local elections. However, unlike today, Labour in 2019 was also languishing at around thirty percent in the polls compared to the Conservatives’ twenty-six percent. Although Labour’s support in the polls has slightly dropped, there remains a significant and wide gap between the two parties, with Labour continuing to average a fifteen-to-twenty-point lead over the governing party.


Public opinion of parties


What does all this mean for the 2023 local elections? Many pollsters have predicted success for Labour as Keir Starmer has restored the party’s reputation and competence as a government-in-waiting. As part of their political communications, Labour has attempted to conflate national with local issues to entice voters to choose Labour to represent their local area. Sky News released polling results that confidently asserted Labour will perform well in the Midlands and the north of England, with red wall voters set to abandon the Conservatives. Although local elections should be treated and analysed differently from general elections, this will certainly worry Conservative Campaign Headquarters, and analysts will be keeping a close eye on the results to make sense of public opinion of their party at the local level, which may assist them in adopting shrewder strategy at the next general election, likely to be in the winter of 2024. 


However, other commentators have suggested a more nuanced reading of the situation is required. After visiting areas and talking to residents in the north of England, correspondents have uncovered a huge amount of apathy and political disinterest in areas that may disrupt Keir Starmer’s early celebrations. Residents in the recently deemed ‘blue wall’ area of Stafford failed to express any real consensus or concrete opinion of the voting decision. A seventy-five-year-old voter told a Guardian reporter that the 2023 local elections will be the first time he has not voted Conservative in his entire life, but stopped short of committing to a concrete alternative, stating, “I don’t know who I will vote for. All I know is it won’t be Tory.”


Another voter in Glossop expressed a similar element of political apathy, admitting that “Last general election I voted Conservative, but I don’t know for this one.” adding that “they all just spin you whatever they want to spin you.” Widespread indecision is rife, with voters, perhaps similarly to that of the disillusionment with the national parties in 2019, politically homeless. Similar to those feeling unwelcome in Corbyn’s Labour Party, a twenty-four-year-old Glossop resident believed Labour had strayed too far from its traditional values under Keir Starmer, stating “ I’ve always voted Labour, but Labour is not really Labour anymore,” as the party has attempted to appeal to the middle-of-the-road voter and repealed the majority of policy pledges advocated by both Corbyn as the leader and Starmer as part of his subsequent leadership campaign. 




Is the situation similar to that of 2019? One where the two main national parties and their leaders were disenchanting large sections of their voter base, leading to a significant rise in local gains for the Liberal Democrats and independent candidates. Analysts and political followers will not have to wait long to find out. If voter disillusionment is rife, one can expect a significant, but not overwhelming, swing to Labour, large losses for the Conservatives, and moderate increases in Green, Liberal Democrat, and independent seats. Local elections are the ideal outlet for protest votes, with independents especially wielding the potential to offer alternative options to the national party politics that so many believe to be ignoring their local grievances. The notion that voters want a system that simply allows those to ‘work together for the benefit of the country’ is palpable leading up to these elections. 


Political analysts and commentators should not, however, disregard the multifaceted ways in which voters come to their decision at the ballot box, especially when voter apathy and party loyalty are low. They should not forget those like High Peak resident Sue Menzies who, amid the cacophony of campaigning, communications, and conversation leading up to polling day, trusts her intuition to ‘go by those who look nice’ in determining whom to vote for. Candidates should ensure smart haircuts and affable smiles accompany their local policy pledges. 


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