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Rishi Sunak fights on two fronts in English local elections

A polling station sign is adjusted outside the polling station in Bridlington, England, Thursday, May 4, 2023.
A polling station sign is adjusted outside the polling station in Bridlington, England, Thursday, May 4, 2023. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Euronews
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Conservatives are closing a massive polling gap, but opposition parties are still expected to trounce them

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Voters in much of England are going to the polls today in a cycle of local elections that will decide control of local government in some of the nation's key electoral battlegrounds – and offer a barometer of how far the Conservatives have to go to restore voters' trust in them.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has apparently begun to close his party’s polling deficit: According to pollster YouGov’s voting intention tracker, the Conservatives currently trail Keir Starmer’s Labour Party by 14 points – a yawning gap, but better than the 28-point difference recorded in mid-February.

And while Labour is still expected to get back into government one way or another after nearly 13 years of Tory rule, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it hard to predict precisely how polling (if accurate) will translate into parliamentary seats at the next Westminster election.

But Thursday's local elections, with some 8,000 council seats up for grabs, include some of the most crucial Westminster battlegrounds in England. Political pundits say this is the best chance to gauge how the Tories are performing in some of the areas they absolutely have to hang onto if they are to form another government.

The red wall

Boris Johnson’s massive 2019 victory was won in a slew of traditionally Labour-voting seats in the north and midlands that backed his Tory Party, some of them for the very first time. 

The combination of support for Brexit and dislike for then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, pushed working-class and lower-middle-class in disaffected, “left behind” areas towards the Conservatives’ exuberant Brexit-first, nationalistic message.

But today, Brexit is a reality and Johnson has been deposed. And it is not clear that voters in these seats have any reason to vote for the Tories again.

Under Keir Starmer, Labour has moderated its politics significantly since the Corbyn era. The party is now focused on appealing to a particular type of swing voter who is unhappy about illegal immigration, uninterested at best in "culture wars" over gender, sex and racial equality, and keen for the government to get tougher on crime.

Sunak and his party have been fighting hard on all three topics. Their problem tonight is that for the most part, these are not issues for local government, which instead is responsible first and foremost with planning decisions and running local public services – areas where the Conservatives have lately struggled to retain voters’ respect.

The blue wall

While Labour is focused on reviving itself in poorer, less metropolitan post-industrial areas, the Liberal Democrats – the Tories’ former coalition partners – are working hard to hit Sunak’s party on two fronts: the affluent suburbs of the south-east and traditional swing areas in the south-west.

Nationally, the Lib Dems are consistently polling in the low double digits, as they have been since the 2019 election. But they have done extremely well at local elections in recent years, including in previously Conservative-dominated areas that voted leave; when this same batch of seats were up for election in 2019, they picked up a full 700 councillors. Another good night will do a great deal to earn them attention and credibility at a time when they struggle to cut through (and by extension, to raise money).

But more than that, some of their top targets tonight fall within the boundaries of parliamentary seats held by vulnerable Conservative MPs – including sitting ministers – whom the Lib Dems are planning to bring down at the next election. If they can make breakthroughs in those areas, their local activists and future candidates will be that bit more galvanised to fight as hard as they can..

Voter ID

Overhanging the whole election, however, is a radical new development: a new law that requires voters to bring a form of photo ID with them in order to cast a ballot – this in a country that has never had a major problem with voter fraud or impersonation.

It’s an extremely controversial measure. Unlike many European countries, the UK does not have standard-issue state identity cards, meaning millions of voters without driving licences or passports will struggle to produce a document that will allow them to participate under the law.

Campaign groups warn that its effects could be both serious and unpredictable, and that it is still unknown how many voters are fully aware that the law has been passed.

And while tonight’s vote will offer at least some indication of whether people are adequately informed, local elections typically see a lower turnout than general elections, meaning the system will hardly be stress-tested. And that’s only in the fraction of the country where elections are actually happening.

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