By Oliver Gibson –
The debate as to whether or not the 2021 local elections would actually go ahead in May has finally been settled, with the Government confirming that the nation would go to the polls to elect various local officials on the 6th of May.
Many feared that it would be unsafe to hold the elections in May, though with the news that all adults over 50 will have been offered a vaccine by that time, the risk was deemed to have been reduced sufficiently. In order to further mitigate the spread of the virus, the Government recently announced £31 million in funding to pay for plastic screens and hand sanitiser to protect those casting and counting ballots
Whether or not this will be enough to convince people to head to the polls remains to be seen.
With the elections now certain, there are a number of recent case studies that can be used to outline what might happen when the country elects its Mayors, Councillors, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and members of devolved assemblies.
What does the current composition of the Council tell us?
Kirklees Council is currently in a state of ‘no overall control’ – meaning that no one party has a majority of seats – and has been so since November 2020. It has been run continuously by the Labour Party since 2018, however, having previously been in a state of no overall control from 1999 to 2018.
Of Kirklees’ 69 councillors:
- 32 are from the Labour Party
- 16 are Conservatives
- 10 are Liberal Democrats
- 3 are from the Green Party
- 1 is from the group known as the ‘Heavy Woolen District Independents’
- 6 are independents
A total of 33% of voters in Kirklees participated in the 2019 local election – a figure which is reflective of the national average in such elections. Interestingly, it is the case both in Kirklees and in the rest of the country that turnout in local elections is roughly half that of what is found in general elections, showing the work that could be done by central and local government, along with the media, in order to increase voter participation.
62% of voters in Kirklees cast their ballots for the two major parties in the 2019 local election, showing the influence of the traditional ‘two-party’ system. While it is unlikely that another party would be able to gain control of Kirklees Council in the next local election, smaller parties do play an important role in their potential to enter coalitions, where they could then influence local governmental policy.
Labour, along with the Labour and Co-operative Party, achieved 37% of the vote in the 2019 local election in Kirklees, whereas the Conservatives achieved 25%. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens came in third and fourth place, with a combined total of 27% of the vote. While individually behind the two main parties, this proves that minor parties should not be discounted.
West Yorkshire’s general election trends since 2010
The metropolitan district of Kirklees contains an estimated 440,000 people and is represented by 69 councillors who are elected from 23 wards. While West Yorkshire is perceived by many to be politically homogenous in its support for the Labour Party, this is not strictly the case. As demonstrated by the map, which represents the results of the last 4 general elections in West Yorkshire, our county is divided between the two major parties.
Of West Yorkshire’s 22 constituencies, 13 are Labour strongholds, but not necessarily safe seats – with 2 of these, Huddersfield and Batley and Spen, being found in Kirklees. 6 seats in West Yorkshire are Conservative strongholds, but again not necessarily safe seats, with 1 of these, Colne Valley, being found in Kirklees.
A further 3 seats in West Yorkshire are Conservative-held swing seats – with 1, Dewsbury, being found in Kirklees. All 3 of these seats voted for the Labour Party in the 2017 general election and were torn between Labour and the Conservatives in 2010 and 2015. As such, these 3 seats can be described as being swing seats which could back either party depending on the circumstances of a particular election campaign.
In Kirklees and across West Yorkshire in general, support for the Labour Party is typically higher in urban areas. Rural areas and small towns on the other hand generally tend to support the Conservatives. In terms of general election results, Kirklees is currently divided 50-50 between Labour and the Conservatives, however in the ‘winner takes all’ system of First-Past-The-Post, a party’s number of seats is not always reflective of their vote share.
In the 2019 general election, the Labour Party got 92,100 votes in Kirklees across its four constituencies, whereas the Conservatives got 90,302. Clearly then, no party should take its position for granted, nor should they strike Kirklees off. Of course, this is all in parliamentary terms and local election results can be quite different indeed, especially seen as though only a third of registered voters participate in local elections.
Despite this, the tallies nevertheless demonstrate that Kirklees is very much a politically diverse area and not as homogenous as some claim.
What can the 2019 general election and recent polling data tell us?
The 2019 general election shook the foundations of the Red Wall across the North. The Labour Party lost tens of seats that had historically voted for the Labour Party since their inception. In total, the Party lost 60 seats across the country and only made gains in London.
While the election was described as being a landslide victory for the Conservatives, their vote share only increased by 1.2% – bringing it to a total of 43.6%. Was it not for the Labour Party dropping to 32.1% of the vote, then it is unlikely that the 2019 general election would have been won in a landslide.
Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, Sir Keir Starmer, to the position of Labour leader, the Party has seen some small recovery in the polls. Starmer has consistently performed more strongly in approval rating polls than Corbyn and even overtook Boris Johnson’s figures in such polls in May 2020, just one month after taking office as leader.
This was probably helped along the way by the public’s increased hostility to the national lockdown at that time. Recently published statistics from Election Maps UK showed that while Starmer’s approval ratings have dwindled since then, he is still performing consistently higher in personal approval rating polls.
General election polling is a different matter. Due to the nature of polling, the results of polls from different organisations can differ greatly, even if conducted at similar times to one another.
In a recent poll from YouGov in late January, it was found that 41% of the respondents would vote for the Labour Party, whereas 37% would vote for the Conservatives. This scenario is reminiscent of the October 1974 general election, where Labour achieved a vote share of 39.2% to the Conservatives’ 35.8%. Labour, under the leadership of Huddersfield’s Harold Wilson, secured 319 seats to the Conservatives’ 277.
Another poll painted a different story. Redfield and Winton Strategies’ poll from the 25th of January suggested that the Conservatives were performing more strongly. 42% of respondents claimed that they would vote for the Conservatives, whereas 37% claimed that they would vote for Labour. This second scenario is somewhat reminiscent of the 1992 general election, where the governing Conservatives took 336 seats and Labour took 271.
As said before, these are relating to general election polls and do not directly correlate to local elections. However, these prove to be useful pointers in the run-up to an election as they put all parties’ policies to the test as we move towards the release of manifestos and other important documents.
Is a ‘Vaccine Bounce’ on the way for the Conservatives?
According to the Huffington Post, Labour and Conservative strategists are now expecting a ‘Vaccine Bounce’ for the Conservative Party at the upcoming local elections. It is thought that the success of the vaccine rollout in the UK could result in a strong performance for the Party, a clear departure from the Conservatives’ struggle in national polls since the public’s increased frustration with various Coronavirus restrictions.
If Covid-19 restrictions were eased in the run-up to the local elections, this could also play into the Conservatives’ hands, due to presumable increases in public satisfaction and economic activity. The fact that the Government saw off threats from the European Union to limit vaccine supplies to the UK could also play well into the Conservatives’ campaign.
However, the Party could have some ground to tread, to say the least following various U-Turns over Coronavirus restrictions and all the public frustration that ensued. With it now fast approaching the anniversary of the first lockdown, the point comes to mind that the public has sacrificed much in the name of curbing the spread of Covid-19, and should they deem those sacrifices to have been the Government’s fault, then it would be the Conservatives that suffer in the upcoming local elections.
Thoughts on ‘Starmer’s worst week as leader’
The Sun last week published a story chronicling what they deemed to be Starmer’s ‘worst week as leader’ of the Labour Party. In that story, the recent leaked internal report was discussed. This report advised the Party to rebrand itself as being more outwardly patriotic in its political campaigning. As electioneering goes, it is safe to say that Starmer’s predecessor damaged the Party’s prospects at the ballot box in his not-so-patriotic outlook, leading to the Party being hounded in the press and at PMQs at various occasions.
This hindrance prevented the Party from more effectively campaigning on its core issues and most likely cost them votes in the last general election. However, Labour MP Clive Lewis, who stood in the Labour leadership election last year, said recently that the Party should avoid patriotism, stating that ‘there’s a better way to build social cohesion than moving down the track of the nativist right’. Clearly, there is a dilemma faced by Starmer – should he attempt to rebrand his Party’s image, he would face opposition from his own MPs and should he attempt to remain on course the Party’s electoral prospects could be bleak.
The Guardian claimed that Starmer risks ‘turning off his core Labour voters’ as well as backbench MPs if he pursued the course of action recommended in the leaked internal report. It is indeed possible that Labour’s membership could be alienated by such a move, however, members of a party and the members of the public who vote for the party are not one and the same.
Starmer needs to win back the support of the voters who were lost under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership if he hopes to one day become Prime Minister. Fighting within the Party would only prolong its time in opposition, which by 2024 shall be 14 years.
Judging by recent polling and the success of the vaccine rollout so far, the 2021 local elections could go well for the Conservatives in the national sense. If voters are wooed by the prospect of receiving a vaccine well before people in Europe or America, then they could easily choose to cast their ballot for the Conservative Party.
However, if Labour was to organise their campaign in such a way that successfully makes use of the U-Turns and mishaps of 2020, they could make serious progress in Councils across the country.
As was previously examined, Labour is in a much more opportune position in Kirklees than the Conservatives are – and as such has greater electoral prospects here. It is likely, based on evidence from past local elections and the position of the parties at the moment, that Labour would come out on top in Kirklees and remain the Party that runs the Council.
Police and crime commissioner elections in West Yorkshire have so far only resulted in Labour victories, winning in 2012 and in 2016. It is likely that Labour’s Mark Burns-Williamson will be returned to the post of West Yorkshire’s PCC in the upcoming elections, having served in that office continuously since its creation in 2012.
As for the new office of Mayor of West Yorkshire, this will be an election to follow closely by supporters of devolution in our county. Batley and Spen’s MP, Tracy Brabin, has been selected as the Labour candidate and has vowed to stand down as an MP should she be elected Mayor. This office shall grow in importance over time, being scheduled to absorb the office of police and crime commissioner in 2024. It is possible, however likely or unlikely, that the office could also bring the local governments of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield more closely together in the future.
Judging by the positions of the parties in West Yorkshire, it is more likely that Ms Brabin would become our county’s first Mayor than the Conservative candidate, who is yet to be announced. However, it is by no means impossible that another candidate could be elected, especially if turnout was low – where results could be less reflective of the political communities in West Yorkshire.