Great Expectation Management: Will Labour Triumph in the Local Elections?
Tomorrow, voters in England will head to the polls to cast their vote in the 2023 Local Elections. There are 8,000 seats in contest, with the Conservatives defending 83 councils and Labour 49. The majority of these seats were last up for election in 2019, when Labour was divided under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the Conservatives were torn over Theresa May’s Brexit deal. As a result, both the Conservatives (-1330) and Labour (-84) performed poorly, while the Liberal Democrats (+704), Greens (+198), Independent candidates, and minor parties (+606) all performed well.
Between 24th – 28th April, we conducted polling relating to the Local Elections on behalf of Good morning Britain. Both major parties have been managing expectations around the outcome of tomorrow’s contest, with the Conservative Party Chairman predicting his party will lose 1000 seats while Labour have suggested that 400 seat gains would constitute a success.
Our Westminster voting intention polling shows a 17 point Labour lead, with the Liberal Democrats making a sizeable +4 gain. While 87% of 2019 Labour voters express an intention to vote for the party in the next General Election, this collapses to 67% among 2019 Conservative voters. Given we have seen the Labour lead stabilise at 14-17 points, the party will be hoping this translates to success at the ballot box in tomorrow’s Local Elections.
Our Local Elections voting intention shows Labour (33%) in the lead over the Conservatives (23%) by 10 points. The Lib Dems (18%), Greens (11%), and Independent candidates/small parties (14%) are set to replicate their strong 2019 performances, with the Lib Dems being the most popular party in the South East (27%).
Our findings indicate a 6-7% swing from the Conservatives to Labour since 2019, which could have substantial ramifications for the makeup of England’s councils. According to Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, a Conservative to Labour swing of that magnitude would mean the Conservatives could face losses exceeding 1000 seats, while Labour may see gains around the 700 seat mark. Such a swing is notably lower than indicated by national polling data, but the relationship between Westminster polling and Local Elections is not straightforward. Even during the Blair era, Labour had difficulty translating its commanding poll lead into local votes. Furthermore, 5,000 of the 8,000 seats in contest are located in rural shire district councils; in these Conservative strongholds, the Liberal Democrats are often the strongest challengers.
Tomorrow is the first election in which voters will be required to show an accepted form of ID at polling stations. We found that while the majority are aware of such changes, a sizeable 14% were unaware. The share of those who are not aware of the change is the highest among Green Party voters (19%), with Lib Dem voters being the most aware at 94%.
Of more concern, however, is the 5% of respondents who do not possess an acceptable form of identification. In a UK-wide general election, this figure could result in close to 2.6 million people being unable to cast their vote due to a lack of ID. While 2% of those intending to vote Conservative do not possess valid ID, this rises to 6% of those who intend to vote Labour.
This issue is most pronounced among poorer households, with 11% of those with a household income below £20,000 reporting they do not possess a valid form of ID compared to just 1% of those whose household income surpasses £40,000. The introduction of voter ID therefore has the potential to exacerbate an existing trend which sees Local Elections turnout in affluent areas far surpass that in deprived areas.
Overall, opinions on tactical voting are split almost evenly. Although the percentage of those who would not consider voting for a party other than their first choice to prevent another party from winning the election is slightly higher for those likely to vote in the upcoming local elections (44%) than a hypothetical general election (42%), those differences are likely insignificant.
When broken down by voting intention, however, some notable differences arise. In a General Election, the majority of those who would otherwise vote Lib Dem (56%) would be willing to vote tactically, as would 50% of Labour voters, while the majority of Conservative voters (56%) would not be willing.
In terms of the upcoming Local Elections, most of those who intend to vote for smaller parties (57%) would be happy to vote for a candidate or party other than their first choice to prevent another party from winning, while almost an equal share of those intending to vote Lib Dem (49%), Labour (48%), and Green (46%) would be willing to do so. There are also some noticeable differences across age groups. Voters in the oldest age group, 65+, are less likely to consider tactical voting in both local and general elections, while those aged 54 or younger are, on average, more likely to vote tactically.
Motivations for Voting
Consistent with national level issues polling, the cost of living is ranked as the most important issue in determining how people will vote in tomorrow’s Local Elections. The issues making up the top 5 are all national rather than local ones, with 1 in 4 indicating Health and The economy generally are deciding factors, while around 1 in 5 chose Housing and Energy.
In December 2022, Sunak withdrew his house building targets, and housing failed to feature among Starmer's five pledges. This oversight appears to be a missed opportunity for both leading parties. However, Labour's recent commitment to become the party of home ownership and reestablish social housing as the second most prominent form of tenure, via the reintroduction of obligatory targets, could potentially sway undecided voters at the polls.
Interestingly, the issue of Crime, which both the Conservatives and Labour have significantly emphasised in the lead up to the election, comes in sixth place with 16% indicating that it a top 3 deciding factor, while local issues such as potholes (13%), and waste management (7%), fall lower down in the list of priorities.
Barring the Green Party, where the Environment came in first with 40% of the vote, the cost of living was the top issue among voters for all major parties. Conservative and Independent/Small Party supporters prioritised the Economy over Health, whereas Labour voters prioritised both topics approximately equally.
Consistent with our previous polling, Starmer leads Sunak by ten points in understanding of the issues that people are facing as a result of the cost of living crisis. Where Starmer is perceived as empathetic, Sunak has consistently been viewed as disconnected from ordinary people. Notably, 30% of respondents said none of the three major party leaders understands the public's concerns about rising living costs.
A large proportion of those who selected “none” come from those who intend to vote for independent candidates and smaller parties. Starmer clearly wins the majority of Labour voters (61%) - the largest share of their own party voters among all three leaders. Despite this, close to 1 in 10 of those who intend to vote for Labour believe Sunak’s understanding of cost of living issues is better than Starmer’s, compared to only 7% of Conservative voters placing Starmer as the most understanding.
Trust in Labour’s management of the NHS - and distrust in the Conservatives - has long proven fertile territory for Labour. This continues here, with Labour holding a resounding 27 point lead on the question of which party would best manage the NHS. Just 57% of those intending to vote Conservative in the next General Election thought the party would best manage the NHS, compared to 82% of those intending to vote Labour selecting Labour. Given Health was identified as the second top issue in determining voting intention tomorrow, Labour will be pleased with such a substantial lead.
Less common, however, is Labour’s 11 point lead regarding which party respondents believe they will be financially best-off under. Labour does far better with younger respondents and the Conservatives with older voters on this question. Given the salience of issues related to the economy and cost of living, voters’ answer to this question may prove decisive in future elections.
Our estimates indicate tomorrow’s Local Elections will see a 6-7% swing from the Conservatives to Labour since 2019. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, experts in local elections, estimate that applying such a swing to the new boundary changes would result in Conservative losses totalling 1,000 and Labour gains of approximately 700. Labour needs an approximate 12 point swing from December 2019 to win a majority at the next election. While we should avoid overstating inferences drawn from Local Elections to General Elections, they do offer an opportunity for Labour’s lead to be tested in the ballot box.
Get the data
Survation conducted an online poll of 2,014 adults aged 18+ in the UK on their voting intentions in the Local Elections on behalf of Good Morning Britain. Fieldwork was conducted between 24th and 28th April 2023. Tables are available here.
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