A large number of elections will take place in the UK on 5 May. In England there are competitions in 146 municipalities. In London, any council seat in all 32 boroughs is up for election. Elsewhere where elections are underway, at least a third of council seats are contested, with some authorities conducting full polls. There are also elections for mayors in Croydon, Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Tower Hamlets, plus one for the Tube Mayor of South Yorkshire.
Every council seat is also up for grabs in Scotland and Wales. There are 1,219 seats for election across 32 local authorities in Scotland and 1,234 in Wales, across 22 local authorities.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is holding a very important election for its 90-seat Assembly.
In total, nearly 35 million people will be allowed to vote across the country, including 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland and Wales.
England: Labor defends councils, Johnson fights for his career
In England, Labor has the most councils to defend, 62 in all, as it is mainly metropolitan boroughs and district councils that are contested, rather than county ‘shire’ councils, which are typically held conservatively. The Conservatives defend 46 councils and the Liberal Democrats 12. There are 26 other authorities that are not currently under any general control of any party, so they are not considered anyone’s ‘losses’. In London, Labor is defending twice as many seats as the Conservatives.
The key comparison for English local elections is with 2018, as most councilors who fought Thursday were elected for four years at the time. That year the Conservatives and Labor had an equal share of the vote, each with 35%. According to current polls, Labor is almost six points ahead, so Keir Starmer’s party can expect some progress and gain a few hundred council seats.
Such gains would also represent a significant improvement for Labor from last year’s local elections, when the party underperformed. Labor was seven points behind the Conservatives with 29% of the vote, Boris Johnson’s party gained 235 seats and Starmer lost 327. It is highly unusual for a ruling party to do so well halfway through the term.
Since then, the prime minister has been embroiled in several controversies – “party gate” is the most prominent. Labor hopes to capitalize. Conservatives hope the government’s “levelling” money will help the party in key northern councils. That would indicate that the party could hold a string of unlikely ‘red-wall’ parliamentary constituencies that won in the 2019 general election.
A poor conservative performance would add to the pressure on Johnson. At present, enough of his MPs consider him an electoral asset to keep him in office. But that could change if the elections go very badly. If they want change, MPs must submit letters of no confidence towards Johnson to Sir Graham Brady MP, the chairman of their parliamentary party. Once 54 have been tabled, a vote of no confidence would be triggered.
Wales: Tories concerned about key council
In Wales, half of the last elected councils in 2017 are not under universal scrutiny. Most can stay that way, although Labour, long the largest party in Westminster and Senedd/Assembly matches, can add something to the seven council total.
The Conservatives are keen to keep their lone Monmouthshire council, but three seat losses won’t push it into any general control. Plaid Cymru must keep Gwynedd, the only council that directly controls the party.
Scotland: a battle for second place
Scotland uses the ‘single transferable vote’ system for its local elections, which goes a long way to ensuring that no party has full control over a council – although the SNP has minority control (sometimes in coalition) of nearly half .
The SNP has remained dominant in the elections held for seats in Westminster and Holyrood since the last series of local competitions took place in 2017.
In those 2017 contests, the SNP won 35% of the 1,227 council seats vacant for the election. The Conservatives and Labor will battle for second place (and effective leadership of the anti-independence vote, an issue that arguably permeates even local competitions) with 276 and 262 seats respectively. Labor could reverse the order.
Northern Ireland: a seismic shift on the horizon?
Possibly the most dramatic match is taking place in Northern Ireland. Republican party Sinn Féin starts favorites to become the largest party in a country they don’t use the title of (preferring “northern Ireland” or “the north”) and which they want to replace with a united Ireland via a border poll .
By becoming the largest Assembly party, Sinn Féin could nominate Michelle O’Neill as prime minister, a post previously held by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, there are doubts as to whether a ruling decentralized executive can be restored. The DUP resigned its prime minister in February, which under power-sharing rules meant that O’Neill also lost her job as deputy prime minister (the posts’ powers are identical).
Unless the post-Brexit maritime border between Britain and Northern Ireland is removed, the DUP says it will not cooperate with the executive. What comes next after the municipal elections, whether Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party of not, is very unclear.
There’s a lot to play for this Thursday in the UK.