Britain at the polls: the early results

  • As local council election results begin to pour in, the Conservatives have suffered losses across the board, with Labour predicted to take hundreds of seats. 
  • Labour has won the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election with an enormous swing against the Conservatives of 26.3% - the third-biggest since the Second World War
  • It's not all bad for the Tories, with the Party retaining their flagship mayoralty in the Tees Valley and appearing increasingly confident they will hold the West Midlands.


What has happened?

Yesterday, England went to the polls in over 2,600 council seats, 10 mayoralties, 37 police and crime commissioners, the London Assembly and a parliamentary by-election. At the time of writing, around a third of results are in, with the full picture of results. 

The verdict so far makes grim reading for the Conservatives, who on the current trajectory will lose more than half the seats they were defending. Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, was up early at Blackpool Cricket Club, to celebrate taking the Tories with 58.9% of the vote – better than its 1997 performance in the constituency.

Labour have comprehensively outperformed the Conservatives at local council level, while Reform was a whisker away from pushing the Tories into third place in Blackpool South. Closer inspection shows a broader distribution of votes, however, with the Greens and Liberal Democrats also making significant gains, and in a shock result, Labour losing control of Oldham Council to a grouping of independents.

The Tories’ retention of the Tees Valley mayoralty (with a reduced vote share), and perhaps of West Midlands mayoralty tomorrow, will be held up by Downing Street as significant victories for an embattled Prime Minister. But these will be overshadowed by Labour’s success in the newly-created York and North Yorkshire mayoralty, which houses Sunak’s own Richmond constituency.


What does it mean?

The Conservatives will point to Tees Valley and their retention of Harlow Council as signs of success overnight, and Sunak himself will be relieved that the Tories finished second in Blackpool South – albeit by just 117 votes. But these results will be cold comfort to disaffected MPs anxious about retaining their own seats under Sunak’s leadership. The growing threat from Reform is an ominous sign for Red Wall Tories in a General Election year, and the warning from Conservative activists that voting Reform would ‘let Labour in through the back door’ did not cut through in Blackpool. Labour won the seat with nearly 60% of the vote.

We must be clear about how to interpret Thursday’s results. While mayoral contests can be of great psychological importance, their electoral significance in the long-term is muted. It is the change at local council level that gives us the best steer on how the parties may fare at a General Election, and it appears that the Conservatives have lost hundreds of seats to Labour overnight.

It’s not all smooth sailing for Starmer’s Labour. These elections are the first since the start of the war in Gaza, and areas with a high proportion of Muslim voters – which have traditionally been Labour strongholds – are having their say on the Party’s stance. The verdict was clear in in Oldham, where Labour lost control of the Council, and Bolton, where Labour failed to win the Council from no overall control. In some places, recriminations were beginning before the results were even declared, with a senior Labour source telling the BBC that Hamas was to blame for the Party’s defeat in the West Midlands – only to be contradicted and condemned minutes later by a Party spokesperson. Such moments will serve as a reminder to Starmer that his Party is a broad coalition.

If Street does join Houchen in holding his mayoral seat for the Tories, Sunak can legitimately claim two important victories, despite both Mayors distancing themselves from the Conservative brand throughout the campaign. But voters are sending a broader message dissatisfaction to Sunak. Blackpool South proves the Conservatives won’t survive a pincer movement from Labour on the left and Reform on the right. 


Why does it matter?

It’s a common question about local elections: why do they matter? The answer you get depends on who you ask. The victors – in this case, the Labour Party – tell you the results are indicative of a national trend in their favour. Ask the losers – in this case, undoubtedly, the Conservatives – and they will argue that such elections are highly localised and shouldn’t be extrapolated to a national level. They’ll also point to individual successes – such Tees Valley – as cause for optimism. The reality is therefore sometimes hard to discern amidst this haze of expectation management. 

What we can be sure of is that despite his efforts to claim those victories, pressure will grow on the Prime Minister as a result of these elections. While it still seems unlikely that he will face a confidence vote, significant losses across the board for the Party will amplify calls for a change of leadership. The strong performance by Reform will see calls for a shift further to the right – calls that Sunak may yet heed in an effort to stem the flow of votes from his Party to Starmer’s. The problem with such a shift that it will alienate moderate Conservative voters – those who before 2019 had put successive Conservative Governments in Downing Street, and who are increasingly considering the offer from Starmer’s Labour Party.

Victor he may be, but Starmer would be wrong to think he’s out of the woods. His Party’s electoral difficulties with the Muslim community may be here to stay, while Labour lost a number of seats to the Greens in areas they will need to win if they are to secure a Commons majority at the General Election. At time of writing, the Green Party is on course for a record number of councillors, in a reminder that there are alternative electoral avenues for those seeking to oust the Conservatives. 


What comes next?

Results will continue to trickle in over the weekend. At the local council level, the picture will continue to become clearer, while some key mayoral seats will give a useful sense of how the electorate has settled on the options before it. 

Ultimately, Sunak’s fate may be decided the overall scale of the defeat at these elections. His team’s ability to maximise the limited good news over the coming days will be crucial, and will likely shape the remainder of Sunak’s premiership. Depending on whether – and when – his opponents in Westminster move against him, though, the Prime Minister could already be living on borrowed time.

Edelman Global Advisory will take stock of the results as the remaining votes are counted, and will return with a longer read once it’s clearer what the Local Elections 2024 mean for the Government, the Opposition and the country ahead of the impending General Election – which might just have moved a little closer. 


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