‘Potholes, parks and planning’: what to look out for at the local elections

By Jamie Ali

Leaflets are going through letterboxes, MPs are de-camping to the marginals, and Sir John Curtice is back on the media rounds. It’s that time of year again: local election season.

But what kind of results will help party strategists sleep easy after polling day? And how much can these elections about potholes, parks and planning really tell us about who will win the keys to No.10 anyway?

Since the last local polls, No.10 has seen three different tenants, a mini-budget crash, and a 15-20 per cent poll shortfall. So, Downing Street will surely present any result that looks better than complete disaster as a win. Rishi Sunak will hope for “red wall” gains in the remnants of Labour’s former heartlands in the North and the Midlands, such as Labour-run Bassetlaw and Bolsover. He will be eager to hold Labour back in marginal seats that tend to act as indicators of the prevailing political mood, bellwethers like Harlow and Broxtowe.

Labour, of course, will want to present a narrative that they are about to storm into government. Kicking off their campaign in South Swindon, which last voted Labour under Tony Blair, shows the scale of their ambition but also the size of Labour’s task ahead. Look at results in towns like Stoke, Stockton, and Redcar for signs that the red wall is being rebuilt.

But can we be certain that things will be all rosy for Labour? Follow Sir Keir Starmer’s campaign route so far through Hartlepool, Plymouth and Medway to see where he hopes to break new ground. With expectations high, if the party fails to make a meaningful breakthrough in key marginal councils like these, we will see fresh questions about whether Labour’s current monumental poll lead will stick until the general election.

Sir Ed Davey kicked off the Liberal Democrats’ campaign by driving a yellow tractor through a “blue wall” made of hay bales – just in case his plan of attack on the Tory heartlands was not clear enough. Cautiously managing expectations he is not. With these elections, he will be aiming to use local wins to jump-start campaigns to beat the likes of Dominic Raab in the bluest of blue Surrey next year.

Then, we have the Greens. Expect them to build on their small, but fast-growing local base. Look for green shoots in places as varied as the former shipbuilding Merseyside suburb of Birkenhead, the well-heeled Cheshire suburb of Hale, and true-blue Tory countryside in the South. Naturally, keep an eye on the hard-fought contest between Labour and the Greens in Brighton & Hove.

Finally, the rise of the independents. A range of councils like Hartlepool, Ashfield and others – areas where both main parties would be thrilled to make gains – have a growing range of local independent groups. Will we see voters splitting their allegiances when given the chance to protest, and the focus is on local issues?

Both main parties have their eyes fixed on the biggest prize – next year’s general election. Strategists will be gifted a stream of real-life data to sharpen their target lists. The Tories will want signs that, despite everything, the public really is still willing to give them another go. Labour will want to show off their march into government.

But any side struggling to find a comforting story in the results will be thankful that the King’s Coronation comes just days after polling stations close, quickly pushing all the election night spin down the news agenda as the nation marks the royal occasion.