On 5th May, voters took to the polls across the United Kingdom. At stake was the control of local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland, with Northern Ireland’s Assembly, Stormont, up for grabs too.
In the end, the Conservatives lost approximately 500 seats, while Labour had some success, but the winners of the elections will have been the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the SNP in Scotland whom all had successful sets of election results.
The Conservatives suffered significant losses – particularly in London and in those traditional ‘Blue Wall’ areas where Labour and the Liberal Democrats made gains, whereas Labour – though successful in Wales – may have hoped to have seen greater progress in those traditional ‘Red Wall’ areas in the North.
Our analysis below breaks down what happened, emerging trends, and the likely impact of these results at a national level, and beyond.
If you’re interested in any particular election result in a local authority area, visit BECG’s local elections hub to find out more, or get in touch with your Cavendish team.
The results showed Labour gains in the South of England, and Conservative losses across key authorities – including flagship boroughs in London like Wandsworth and Westminster. The overall trend came as no great surprise – the Conservatives were careful to undertake an “expectation management campaign” over the weeks leading up to the election and were expecting losses in London and across the rest of England, Wales, and Scotland.
At the same time, Labour went into the election hoping to re-gain the confidence of voters in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies that were lost at a parliamentary level in the 2019 General Election as the Party rode high on a 5% lead against the Conservatives in the national polls. There was a strong Labour performance in Wales, the South and in London, but not quite the national performance they’d hoped for.
Below is a breakdown of the picture across each nation and the implications of this for the PM, and the wider business impact.
It was close to 48 hours after the polls closed before we found out the exact make-up of the next Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. The Single Transferrable Vote electoral system meant numerous rounds of counting in each constituency across two days and an agonising wait for candidates in each of the 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland.
As predicted, Sinn Féin achieved the highest number of first preference votes, the surge of support for the Alliance Party continued as they more than doubled their number of seats, and the Democratic Unionist Party lost its position as the largest party dropping three seats.
All this points to a new emerging order in Northern Irish politics with a large unionist bloc dominated by the DUP, a large nationalist bloc dominated by Sinn Féin, and a large non-aligned bloc dominated by the growing Alliance Party.
Due to the unique set of circumstances and the nature of power sharing it will now be down to the parties to come to an agreement to form an Executive. Sinn Féin, with the largest number of Assembly seats at 27, is entitled to the position of First Minister in an Executive and the DUP, with 25 is entitled to the position of Deputy First Minister.
It remains to be seen if the DUP will agree to go into the Executive and share power with Sinn Féin while the issue of the NI protocol is not solved, it will all come down to which direction the UK Government decide to take over the coming days.
Upshot: Look out for the crucial discussions and fallout these elections will have on the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In London, the ‘partygate’ scandals, and Boris Johnson’s drop in popularity, was felt far more than in the north of the country: totemic Wandsworth fell from the Tories grasp, as did Barnet and Westminster. A win for Labour in Barnet was always on the cards but Wandsworth (held since 1978) and certainly Westminster (held since 1964) seemed for many a step too far, but all three turned red.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats built their bases in Merton and Richmond-Upon-Thames too. Overall, the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) are viewed as being one of the main ‘winners’ of the local election after gaining 191 seats in England and this is helping fuel the party’s claim to a potentially successful General Election campaign. They gained eight seats in West Oxfordshire and pushed out the Conservatives to No Overall Control. They also took control of the new Somerset unitary authority, which had been expected to be taken by the Conservatives.
Looking north and the Lib Dems can point to more successes like Hull City Council, where the party took control from Labour following a decade of Labour ruling the authority.
Looking at the Greens, on the whole the party had a very successful local election, gaining over 80 seats in England, They won their first seat in Coventry as well as three more in the Wirral. In South Tyneside, they became the second largest party on the council. All their gains gave them cause for celebration and they declared the result “phenomenal”.
For Labour, their performance in the north was disappointing – they lost their leader in Oldham to the Conservatives. The Tories also solidified gains in previously key red areas like Hartlepool, which Labour also lost on a parliamentary level at the by-election last May too.
What’s more – in ‘Leave’ voting areas, Labour didn’t perform well. Labour didn’t make any ground in Harlow and Thurrock in Essex, and didn’t do well in Nuneaton and Stevenage either. It would seem Labour has not quite done enough to ensure success at a future General Election. Particularly in the wake of Durham Police’s announcement they would investigate Labour Leader Keir Starmer over ‘Beergate’, this fear might have more justification.
Upshot: The certainty of keeping, or winning, the keys to No.10 at the next General Election still remain unclear for both the Conservatives and Labour, in light of these local results. The Conservatives will now start to worry about the future of Tiverton & Honiton at the upcoming parliamentary by-election as the Lib Dems will look to continue their South West resurgence.
While the headlines will show that the SNP were the clear winners, winning the most seats and notching up their eleventh national election win in a row, their 34.1% share of the vote shows they have still to find a way of converting their parliamentary support over to a local level. While the party will point to successes such as gaining a majority in Dundee, they were run close in Glasgow by Labour, with the Greens also polling well there. Notably, this is likely to see some sort of coalition in Scotland’s largest city, reflecting the agreement between the parties at a national level.
This election was a bit of a watershed moment for the Greens, who also put in a strong performance in Edinburgh, resulting in a doubling of seats to 35 across the country. For Labour, although they made modest gains, they made a surprising breakthrough in West Dunbartonshire, where they now have a majority.
More importantly, Labour’s gain of 20 seats took them into second place, ahead of the Conservatives. Coupled with the party’s revival in Glasgow, Labour will feel they have finally turned a corner and foundations to build on for the next UK General Election.
So where does all this leave the Conservatives? After a collapse in the party’s vote in Glasgow and losses across the country, pushing them into third place, the Conservatives are at a crossroads. While leader Douglas Ross has pointed to the cost-of-living crisis and ‘partygate’ as mitigating factors, he has to take some personal responsibility for his party’s poor showing. His flip-flop over calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation will have been perceived by some voters as a show of weakness, but perhaps his biggest challenge is trying to live up to the success of his predecessor Ruth Davidson. Her sprinkling of magic dust on the party is now starting to wane and Ross must come up with some radical solutions fast to shore up support, or the party may decide a change is in order to give them enough time to bed in a new leader ahead of the next General Election. As for the Lib Dems, it was a solid showing but, like Labour, they have a long way to go to turn votes into seats at Westminster and Holyrood.
Upshot: While the SNP continues their dominance, there are green shoots of recovery for Labour, while the Conservatives are now in a precarious position. Keep your eyes on Scotland as the SNP use their continued dominance of Holyrood and of local council seats to push again for a second independence referendum too.
The Welsh elections proved to be a huge disappointment for the Conservative Party, with the loss of control of Monmouthshire. They lost 82 seats overall in Wales and ended up being wiped out in some councils such as Torfaen. It would appear that national issues that are currently dominating domestic politics had a significant impact on the Welsh Conservatives’ loss.
Labour made some significant inroads. They regained Bridgend and Blaenau Gwent; councils which they lost control of five years ago. Blaenau Gwent, as the birthplace of the NHS, has particular symbolic value making the win all the more important for Labour. They have also made Cardiff something of a stronghold with their sizeable overall majority where they already hold all four constituencies in the Senedd and Westminster.
However, animosity towards Neath Labour MP Christina Rees led to Labour losing overall control of Neath Port Talbot for the first time since the mid-1990s. Local issues in Caerphilly regarding a waste plant also led to a substantial loss for Labour to Independents.
Arguably though, Plaid Cymru were the winners in Wales, increasing their control of councils mainly located in Welsh language heartlands, across the nation from one to four, including nine seats in Wrexham. However, their success was not felt in authorities it had previously held such as South Wales and they lost six seats overall.
Upshot: A torrid time for the Conservatives, but whilst Labour won 66 more seats, they only control one additional authority. Plaid’s election was a mixed bag but one they’ll be buoyant about as they increased their control of local authorities to four.
The forecast for Boris
Losing Barnet, Westminster and Wandsworth in London is unavoidably painful for the Conservatives, and for the PM. Losing ground in the ‘Blue Wall’ in the southern shires to the Lib Dems was not great either, but the ‘Red Wall’ appeared to hold up. That will be the optimistic takeaway by the Conservatives in Westminster.
Whilst it was always unlikely, we also didn’t see a possible swathe of letters sent in to the 1922 Committee to trigger a leadership contest. However, in the south, Tobias Ellwood MP called on his colleagues to take this time to assess whether Mr Johnson is still fit to be leader. In the north, Aaron Bell MP – who has submitted a letter to the ’22 already – also called for the PM’s leadership to be addressed. But there continues to be myriad of other items on MPs’ minds as well as they ponder sending in a letter.
Firstly, this was a local election, not a General Election. Many voters will feel they could protest and signal that the Government needs to change direction to earn their support in 2024 without changing the Government.
There’s also the potential reset the bills outlined in the Queen’s Speech could be for the party nationally, the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the fact that Parliament was prorogued so backbench Tories were separated in their constituencies rather than in the tearooms of Westminster, and the small matter of two parliamentary byelections coming up in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton.
However, many expect the position of the Conservative backbenches to be crystallised over the summer, especially following the two byelections which are in key areas the Conservatives will need to hold to win the next general election.
So, Boris will hold on again, for now. But, as ever, continue to watch this space. A week is a long time in politics.
What do the local election results mean for you?
What is clear from these local elections results, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens picking up seats, as the Conservatives lost them, is that businesses and organisations need to be prepared for any eventuality come the next general election.
Labour has made ground on the Conservatives, but would be unlikely to be able to take the keys to No.10 on their own; a coalition of some sort looks a genuine possibility if these results were replicated nationally.
As such, businesses and organisations need to understand the views and policy directions of the incumbent Conservatives, the advancing Labour Party, and also the smaller Liberal Democrats, Greens and DUP, who may hold the balance of power and the keys to No.10 in a coalition scenario.
This is a crucial time to de-risk your business or organisation to a potentially seismic shift in political attitude and direction in Westminster in 2024 – these local elections have shot the starting gun, make sure you’re not left behind.
If you’re interested in any particular election result in a local authority area, visit BECG’s local elections hub to find out more, or get in touch with Oliver Hazell.