Close up of UK polling station street sign

Today, 248 English local councils will be up for re-election, with 8,374 English council seats being contested. There will also be elections for six directly elected mayors, as well as local elections in Northern Ireland.

While the foreground continues to be dominated by Brexit and the upcoming European Union (EU) elections, local issues have been pushed to the background, giving the elections the feel of an unofficial referendum. Turnout is expected to be low, with voter apathy, political fatigue and Game of Thrones all surely playing a part. Previous local election vote tallies would suggest that turnout will struggle to get above 40%.

Though this will certainly be a tough test for Labour; all eyes are on the Conservatives who look set to face a hammering in the election. Local election results are notoriously hard to interpret, given the low turnout and the pronounced effect that local issues can have on results; however reports from canvassers from all political parties suggest that these elections will be used to send a message to the government. This could turn out to be the Conservative Party’s long night.

2019 United Kingdom local election map

Conservatives

On the surface, the Conservative Party look well prepared. Although it is facing a grassroots meltdown due to the party’s stance on Brexit, it will be fielding candidates in more than 95% of English council seats, many across their traditional heartlands. Conversely, Labour is only fielding candidates in 77% of seats.

On the surface, this would suggest that the Conservatives are well placed to stage a firm defence; although the opposite seems to be true. Nationally, the party currently sits at a dismal 27% in polling results taken from the Poll of Polls, and more damningly still, a recent projection by the Tory peer Robert Hayward has suggested that the party could lose up to 800 seats, with around 500 going to the Liberal Democrats and 300 to Labour.

A loss of 800 seats today would be a terrible result for the Tories and there are suggestions that this could be as high as 1000. The current tactic from Conservative HQ is to stick their head in the sand and wait for this to blow over, with Conservative Party chiefs advising candidates not to canvas over fears of enraging potential voters.

Luckily for the Tories though, the Brexit Party is not standing in the local elections, which would have certainly compounded their misery.

Key battlegrounds: North Norfolk, Maidstone, Derby

Labour Party

In 2019, Labour will lack the safety of London, where it historically performs well, and will instead face voters from mainly Brexit supporting-areas across the country.

Despite fielding fewer candidates than the Conservatives this time round, Labour is expected to make some inroads and a good night for them would be a seat gain of 300 or more. Negligible gains would suggest that Labour’s confused message on Brexit is failing to hit home with voters and that it may lack the momentum if the government calls an early election.

A good night for the Lib Dems would certainly turn heads in the Labour camp though, increasing pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to explicitly back a ‘confirmatory vote’ on all negotiated Brexit deals.

Key battlegrounds: Brighton, Bolton Council, Calderdale

Liberal Democrats

Since the 2018 Local Elections, there have been 178 council by-elections (for 183 seats). This has seen the two main parties losing seats, with Labour down six and the Conservatives seven. The Liberal Democrats however have gained ten seats, increasing their vote share by 5.9% at the same time. Modest gains have been a common theme for the Lib Dems since its lacklustre performance at the 2017 local council elections where it lost 43 seats; and while its performance on the national stage still seems stilted, the party has been busy at work at a local level, an area that it usually excels in.

This will be an important test for the Lib Dems, and an opportunity to prove it is not a spent force, which would be a worrying outcome given Change UK’s emergence into the centre ground of British politics.

All reports, however, suggest that it is set to capitalise today, and if projections are to be believed (+500 seats) then it could be set to be the big winner on the day. This will be incredibly important for the party, who desperately need to show that it is the biggest remain supporting party in the country, especially in the run up to the European elections.

Key battlegrounds: Stockport Council, South Somerset, North Norfolk

UKIP

Not threatened by its new and improved rivals, the Brexit Party, who is standing solely in the upcoming EU elections. This could be a chance for UKIP to stage a modest comeback, picking up disenfranchised Conservative and Labour voters who support Brexit. Given that the party will only be standing in 17% of seats, the expectations are that it will face significant losses instead.

Key battlegrounds: Thanet, Boston

Green Party

Similar to the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party is an excellent operator when it comes to local elections, with a well organised grassroots campaigning team.

The Greens look set to make modest gains in seats across the country, at the expense of Labour (who it is polling surprisingly well against, much to the bemusement of senior Labour figures) or even the Lib Dems in certain areas. Either way, any gains today would be a positive step forward for the party who may well receive a boost from the Extinction Rebellion protests in April, which received widespread news coverage.

Key battlegrounds: Brighton and Hove, Trafford

What could this mean, and is it important?

Sadly but predictably, attention on the local elections has been low, with all eyes firmly on the upcoming EU elections, Tory and Labour infighting and the rise of the Brexit Party. However, the effects of a bad result today will certainly be felt by the two main parties and some of the smaller ones as well.

The winners of this year’s local elections? The Liberal Democrats. It may not sound like the most illustrious of titles, but it would be an important boost as the party looks ahead to the EU elections, where it will be battling it out amongst the Green Party and Change UK for the position as Britain’s chief remain-supporting party.

On Friday however, the media’s attention will firmly be on the Conservative Party. In the wake of Theresa May becoming the first Tory leader in its 185 year history to face an emergency grassroots vote on her leadership, any further dents to her authority from a poor local election result will certainly increase pressure on the embattled prime minister, forcing her into a re-think ahead of the EU elections. Does she call an end to the cross-party talks with Labour in a bid to appease some of her cabinet and backbenchers? Does she move her party further to the right in an effort to recapture some of those voters wooed by the Brexit Party’s simple messaging? Or does she stay her course, hoping against hope that her deal finally passes? Currently, none of these options seems likely given the party’s current state of paralysis.

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