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All politics is local

You might not plan on staying up through the small hours of Friday morning to watch the local election results trickle in, but Thursday’s set of polls are nevertheless set to be revealing and consequential. Over a hundred local authorities in England are electing councillors while ten Mayoralties are up for grabs, including in the capital where residents will also be voting for members of the London Assembly.

Once the votes are counted there will be plenty to pore over, right down to individual council wards as party strategists seek to identify their strongholds, their opponents’ weak spots and the gaping holes in their own defences. Taken together, Thursday’s elections will offer a substantial if incomplete glimpse into the state of the nation. While it may feel as if the political narrative is well established (Rishi on the ropes, Starmer on the up) the results of this week’s ballots will refine and sharpen that narrative and may even change it – not least when it comes to the mood within the Tory party.

And while for many people the votes will be about local planning issues and bin collections, the results will also matter for businesses with an eye on the future political and economic direction of the country. So, what should we be looking out for, and what might be we discussing as the dust settles over the weekend?

What would be a good night for Labour?

The first thing to look for will be the size of the anticipated Labour gains. Political parties that are about to move from opposition to government invariably make large council gains in the local elections closest to the general election. This was true in 1979, 1997 and 2010 – three elections that saw a transfer of power at Westminster. If Labour’s share of the vote hits north of 45 per cent, it will point to a sizeable majority at the general election. As for the Tories, they’re already rolling the pitch with talk of “a tough night ahead” but even while they anticipate a drubbing in council elections, they’re holding out for two key mayoral wins; retaining the leadership of the West Midlands and Tees Valley. In the former, Andy Street has become more of a CEO of the West Midlands, while in the Northeast Ben Houchen has become a poster boy for so-called Red Wall conservatism and tangible levelling-up gains. To lose one of them would be unfortunate; to lose both would be careless. One Tory source tells us they’re “hopeful we can hang on to Houchen and Street” – suggesting that good news is likely to be thin on the ground come Friday morning, while a Labour source says both contests are on a knife edge and “MPs and candidates have been mandated to hit the phones and call voters in these areas to press for the win.”

A tale of two cities

The other big vote is of course for the Mayor of London. The polls suggest Sadiq Khan is on course to win a third term, but the Conservative Candidate Susan Hall insists she’s in with a chance, and while the conventional wisdom is that she won’t make it over the line, she does have her supporters. Nevertheless, there are plenty of Conservatives who think their chances would have been increased with a different candidate. One plugged-in former Tory advisor admits there are plenty of people in the party – and in Number Ten – who “can’t quite believe they allowed themselves to end up with Hall as their choice”, confident that Khan could have been defeated by a stronger Conservative candidate, perhaps in the style of Andy Street. That said, Hall is extremely popular among London-based members of the Conservative party and she has a large activist base. She also has a clear message for the large block of outer-London voters when it comes to the Mayor’s controversial ULEZ expansion (she’d reverse it) so don’t be surprised if she puts in a good showing. The change to the voting system (it’s now a clear first-past-the-post system) also gives her a boost.

It’s not just Red vs. Blue

And what of the other parties? If the Liberal Democrats are to take advantage of Conservative woes in the southern heartlands at the general election, then they will need to show progress in Rochford, Eastleigh and outer London boroughs such as Sutton and Merton if they are to convince voters to switch. Tory strategists are likely to be more concerned about bleeding votes to the right, with Reform polling at around 12% and already costing them thousands of votes at recent by-elections – a trend Sunak can’t afford to see repeated at the election. Labour strategists will also be keeping one eye on Bristol City Council, where the Greens are already the largest party (by one) and are hoping to pose a serious challenge in the new Bristol Central seat at the general election.

When the dust settles

In the wake of widespread Tory losses – especially if those losses include their crown jewel mayors in the West Midlands and Tees Valley – then the weekend papers will be even more full than usual of plots and briefings against Rishi Sunak. One Conservative adviser we spoke to concedes that “if it’s really bad on Thursday there will be lots of questions and it’ll be difficult for Number 10,” but adds that “the cabinet is full square behind Rishi and there’s just no appetite for a leadership election.” That final point might not be shared with Tory backbenchers, many of whom face losing their seat in a general election and may feel they have nothing to lose by rolling the dice on a new leader.

While the Tories will doubtless indulge in another round of infighting, however far it gets them, Labour’s messaging over the weekend will almost certainly be based on momentum, breakthroughs, the regaining of trust among voters and their readiness to fight a general election. The contrast with the Tories will be stark, something that won’t be lost on the public. Thursday’s votes constitute the last ‘live’ test of public opinion before the general election. The results and the picture they paint will feed into strategy and messaging for the months ahead, and the national campaign will be underway.

If you’d like to speak to Hawthorn about our Political Advisory offering, please email Mark Burr at

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