Local elections autopsy: Labour preparing for power as the Tories collapse

  • The Conservatives took heavy losses at local council level, losing nearly half the seats they were defending on 2 May 
  • The Labour Party celebrated a commanding victory in the Blackpool South by-election, a near-clean sweep of the Mayoralties including London and the totemic West Midlands contest, and significant advances at local council level 
  • Smaller parties also made gains at local council level, with the Liberal Democrats pushing the Tories into third place nationally, and the Greens climbing to their highest ever nationwide seat total 
  • The results of head-to-head contests between the two main parties suggest the Labour Party is winning in the areas it needs at a General Election, even if it has work to do to shore up its left flank 


The local council elections: winners and losers?

When it comes to analysing these results, the change in local council representation is the most important element to consider. It is at local this level that the electorate has the most tangible contact with its political representatives, and that political change is most visible. The 2024 local elections had a clear loser: the Conservative Party. 

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.

The Tories lost nearly 500 seats of the 989 they were defending, a 48% reduction, leaving the Party with its lowest representation at council level since 1998. Some areas saw the Conservatives almost completely wiped out. In Welwyn Hatfield, the home council of Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, the Tories lost 10 of the 14 seats they were defending, with the spoils shared between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives fared equally poorly in key General Election battlegrounds. In East Worthing, Shoreham, and Aldershot in the South, and up to Hyndburn in the North East – all areas represented by Conservative MPs – the Party took heavy losses. In all, they lost control of 10 councils, on a night from which the Prime Minister will find little to draw solace.

The Labour Party, by contrast, has much to celebrate. Winning 34% of the vote to the Tories’ 25%, the Party’s performance consolidated its representation across the country, taking control of a further eight councils, four of which swung to Labour directly from the Conservatives. At first glance, these election results may not appear to be as seismic for Labour as many had predicted. Of the 474 seats that the Conservatives lost, 186 – under 40% – were taken by Labour, reflecting the rise of other political parties across the political spectrum, amongst whom the remaining 288 Tory losses were shared out.

But as we have warned, it’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the local election results and making predictions ahead of the General Election. The truth is that last Thursday, Labour made gains in the places it must win at the General Election to take control of the country. In the South of England, where an unprecedented demographic shift is taking place as young people increasingly move out of big urban centres, Labour made significant progress. These results ultimately point to Labour winning ‘where it matters’ – in the parts of the country where General Elections are decided. 


Metro mayors

The Labour Party all but swept the board in the 2024 mayoral contests across England. Of the 10 Metro Mayors up for grabs, Labour won nine of them, failing only to take the Tory flagship Tees Valley seat in the North East – but making a significant dent in the incumbent Ben Houchen’s vote share (with a swing that, if repeated, would see Labour win all seats in the region at the General Election).

All other Metro Mayors were held or – in the case of the newly-created seats – won by the Labour Party. This included a comfortable win in York and North Yorkshire, a new mayoralty which houses the Prime Minister’s own parliamentary constituency of Richmond, in what will go down as a particularly bruising defeat. The other new mayoralty, East Midlands, was also taken decisively by Labour, in a part of the country with lots of Red Wall seats that will form part of any majority at Westminster.

But the biggest prize was in the West Midlands. As reflected in our long read last week, at close of poll the Labour Party appeared to all but concede the contest, with recriminations spilling into the national media. But as ballot boxes were opened on Saturday morning, Tory triumphalism began to evaporate as rumours of a close contest and of recounts began to swirl.

When the declaration came, the Labour victory by just 1,508 votes appeared to genuinely shock both sides. But as a local Tory MP told EGA once the result was in; ‘a win’s a win – the numbers don’t matter.’ 


London: The Assembly and the Mayoraly

On Thursday night at close of poll, chatter began to ripple through London political WhatsApp groups after a Conservative activist told a national media outlet they were ‘utterly convinced’ that Susan Hall had won the London mayoralty, due to low turnout. It quickly emerged that the quote had been made either in error or in jest, however, and the results bore that out: Labour’s Sadiq Khan won the contest comfortably, with a 3.8 percentage point increase in his vote share compared to 2021. 

Blackpool South by-election

  • The Labour Party took the seat from the Tories with nearly 60% of the vote 

  • This represents an enormous 26% swing from the Conservative to Labour 

  • Reform UK performed well, finishing in third place just 117 votes behind the Conservatives, in a result which will cause serious concern for the Party 

As our Labour source at City Hall predicted to us last week, getting a majority on the London Assembly was indeed a more complicated task than national polls might otherwise have suggested. In the end the Labour Party won 11 seats, no change from last time round, while the Conservatives lost one seat to Reform UK. The Green Party and Liberal Democrats won three and two seats respectively, also seeing no change in their Assembly representation. 

It is important to keep a sense of perspective when looking at London Assembly results. While the Labour faithful will be disappointed not to see their Party make gains, no party has ever had a majority on the 25-seat Assembly. The real prize for Sadiq Khan will be a Labour Government at Westminster, where the power to unlock his manifesto sits. 

Police and Crime Commissioners

  • Before Thursday, of the 37 PCCs nationwide, the Conservatives held 30 seats to Labour's eight 

  • Labour's strong performance in these elections means the parties are much more evenly split, with the Tories winning 19 to Labour's 17 

  • This means that The Labour Party will have a much greater say over the management of police budgets across England and Wales, but that the Conservatives still hold more sway nationwide 


Analysis: what does the overall performance of the parties tell us?

In the lead-up to these elections there was serious speculation that a poor set of results might result in a renewed effort by Conservative MPs to remove Rishi Sunak as leader of the Conservative Party. It was further suggested that any such push might in turn prompt him to call a snap General Election to head off this challenge. 

In that scenario, a triumphant Sir Keir Starmer welcoming two Conservative-to-Labour defectors at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions today could well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, if a serious leadership challenge was on the cards.

Poor as the results are, all the signals over the weekend – including an interview by Suella Braverman, seen as a potential challenger – suggest that there is neither the time nor the will to launch such a challenge. But this does not mean that the various factions inside the Party will not continue to push Sunak on policy. Robert Jenrick this morning was first out of the post-election blocks, saying that the Prime Minister should be ‘prioritising reducing migration, not banning smoking.’ Such calls will increase ahead of an expected Autumn Statement, but with so little time left before the General Election must be called, the scope to deliver on any policy changes is now extremely limited. 

The Prime Minister is bruised by these results, but his position as leader has emerged unscathed. Similarly, talk of a snap election has also receded, with Downing Street briefing national newspapers that plans for a Summer election had been ‘shelved’. This is perhaps just as well for Sunak. Ahead of a General Election which the Labour Party are more certain than ever to win, the Conservatives are losing everywhere – and are performing poorly against the Reform party in crucial battlegrounds. 

While the Greens may continue to take votes off Labour’s left flank – not least on the issue of Gaza – this is still bad news for the Tories. These factors combined, with increased tactical voting, could lead to a Conservative wipeout across the UK.

These elections were much-vaunted as the final electoral test for UK political parties before the General Election, still widely expected this Autumn, and observers were watching accordingly closely. The truth is more complicated: those who vote in local elections are generally more politically aware than the electorate in a General Election, and may be voting on specific local issues or for specific local personalities. In turn, grievances with a particular party locally does not necessarily translate into a decision not to vote for that party at a national level. 

A small fly in Labour’s electoral ointment may turn out to be its approach to the war in Gaza, but we know that however strongly people feel about foreign policy, it is ultimately domestic considerations – above all the state of the economy – which determine how people vote in General Elections. If still ongoing, the war in Gaza will create issues for a Labour government – but it won’t be enough of an issue to stop them winning the election 

The line which came out of Downing Street in the wake of the elections was ‘Britain is heading for a hung Parliament.’ Trying to scare the electorate into voting for you has had mixed results in the past. In truth, any hung Parliament would have Labour as the largest party: Sunak’s warning to voters may yet backfire and have the effect of firming up the Labour vote.

Ultimately, whatever the efforts of spin doctors, there is a clear thread that can be teased out of the results from Thursday. In keeping with all the polling – and all the feeling amongst politicians and the public alike – these elections go further than anything else to prove that the British electorate is gearing up to vote the Labour Party into government at Westminster – with its most powerful mandate in a generation. 

Materials presented by Edelman Global Advisory UK. For additional information, please reach out to David.Sforza@EdelmanEGA.com.