The postponement of local elections in 2020 means this year’s cycle is the largest for a generation and an even more than usually significant day for local democracy in England, with control of 142 councils up for grabs alongside contests for 13 mayoral authorities and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in 35 police force areas.
Alongside the usual issues on which local campaigns are fought, national politics are in play to a much greater degree in 2021: the government’s handling of the pandemic, lockdowns and vaccinations, the fallout from Brexit, the changing allegiances of Red Wall voters and the performance of the Labour Party under new management will all be important factors on May 6.
Over 5,000 seats are up for election, the majority of them in county councils, and Conservatives are defending nearly half.
Opposition parties’ efforts to capitalise on sleaze allegations and lobbying rows in recent weeks may have contributed a narrowing lead in the polls for the Conservative party, though the Boris factor and potential vaccine bounce should mean the party is confident of protecting the local gains made since the Brexit referendum.
Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, already under heavy scrutiny after a mixed first year, faces a pivotal few days: an improvement on 2019 results, when the party suffered a net loss of seats, is essential, but even meeting that low bar may not be enough to revive Starmer’s fortunes. The poll-predicted defeat for Labour candidate Paul Williams in the Hartlepool by-election, meanwhile, would embolden rivals from the party’s left wing with years of opposition still ahead.
The Liberal Democrats will be hopeful of following 2019’s 700-seat gain with some more good news at a local level after declining returns in the last two national elections when the party was defined by its opposition to Brexit. At the other end of the European spectrum, this year’s polls are the first barometer of Reform UK’s electoral prospects as more than a single-issue party without Nigel Farage at the helm.
Away from the nitty gritty of council votes, some of the most intriguing battles are taking place in this year’s mayoral elections, which include the delayed London poll and some of England’s most significant combined authority contests. We take a look at what to watch for on polling day…
Sadiq Khan has failed to translate an impressive mandate into a transformative first term in City Hall, though he’ll still retain some hope of winning a first-round victory for the first time in a London Mayoral election. Khan enjoyed himself as a Donald Trump provocateur and continues to benefit from a prominent national profile, but he’s vulnerable to criticism on crime, youth violence and TfL finances.
Khan’s closest rival, Shaun Bailey, has made these areas central to his campaign, though the Conservative candidate’s past negative comments have undermined his efforts to overturn a commanding polling lead for the incumbent. The race for third place is between the Greens’ Sian Berry, who achieved that prize in 2016, and Lib Dem candidate Luisa Porritt, as part of an unusually large field featuring YouTubers, independents and novelty candidates.
Weeks ahead of polling day, a confident Liam Byrne declared he would beat incumbent Andy Street comfortably in the race for control of England’s largest directly-elected mayoralty. A victory for the former Cabinet minister would be a major feather in Keir Starmer’s cap and would go some way towards easing the pain of Street’s surprise victory over former Labour minister Sion Simon in 2017, though allegations of misuse of public funds have dogged his campaign.
Street’s campaign has focused on the jobs and investment brought to the region before the pandemic hit, and the former John Lewis man’s almost apolitical interpretation of the role may win favour from voters desperate for some stability.
Ben Houchen was another Conservative candidate to secure a narrow victory in this North East authority’s inaugural election, but the incumbent’s popularity has grown to such an extent that polls have him on track to win a second term handily and perhaps even swing the Hartlepool by-election for his party along the way.
A rising Tory who has been tipped to make the transition to Westminster, Houchen’s campaign has benefited from the decision to operate a new freeport at Teesside and the relocation of civil service jobs to the region. Already facing an uphill struggle, Labour candidate Jessie Joe Jacobs was further hindered by a bout of Covid two weeks before polling day.
Anything but a first-round victory could be considered a bad day for Andy Burnham after his regional popularity was boosted by a return to the national stage in 2020 during his standoffs with Westminster over the Covid tier system. Yet another former Labour minister, Burnham has thrived since leaving SW1 and is pledging to build on popular initiatives on transport, homelessness and housing in a second term, with a future second tilt at the party leadership possibly on the cards.
Three of Burnham’s challengers are previous parliamentary candidates, with Conservative Laura Evans the most likely to take the incumbent to a second round vote.
The path to victory for Labour candidate Tracy Brabin in this inaugural mayoral election should be straightforward, with the party currently in control of the five boroughs that comprise the combined authority. However, the Conservative Party’s victory in four parliamentary seats in the region in 2019 suggest the result could be closer than would be comfortable for Labour, and Tory candidate Matthew Robinson will hope that his party’s national popularity translates into votes on Thursday.
Brabin resigned from the Shadow Cabinet to contest the election and has pledged to step down as an MP if she wins control of what will replace the West Midlands as England’s largest mayoralty.
Labour’s Steve Rotheram and Conservative James Palmer will be confident of securing second terms in the Liverpool City Region and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough respectively, while Samuel Williams should keep the West of England for the Conservatives after incumbent Tim Bowles opted to step down after a single term.
Liverpool’s other mayoral election is made even more confusing with the presence on the ballot of Labour candidate Jo Anderson, who is seeking to replace the borough’s previous Labour Party mayor – er, Joe Anderson – following his resignation over a development scandal. And in another West Country election, Marvin Rees remains the favourite to secure victory and a second term in Bristol, though the city’s Green credentials mean Sandy Hore-Ruthven could run the incumbent close.