Polls open in England’s local elections with Tories braced for heavy losses

Polls open in England’s local elections with Tories braced for heavy losses

Voting has begun in local elections in England, where the Conservatives are braced for heavy losses that could destabilise Rishi Sunak’s premiership.

The elections, which cover more than 2,600 seats across 107 English councils, are seen as a key test of whether the Conservative party is as unpopular with voters as the polls suggest.

Keir Starmer said in a statement on Wednesday night that people had “a chance to vote for that change, and pass a verdict on 14 years of decline”.

“A vote for Labour is for a plan to tilt our economy back towards the interests of working people and restore a sense of service to our politics,” the party’s leader said. “That change starts today, and you can vote for it. You can vote to stop the chaos, turn the page and rebuild your country.”

Ten metro mayoralties including London are being contested, as are 37 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. There are no elections in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and no local council elections in Wales.

There is also a parliamentary byelection in Blackpool South, whose former Tory MP Scott Benton resigned after being found guilty of breaching standards rules in a lobbying scandal. Labour said it was hopeful of taking back the seat, which Benton won with a majority of 3,690 in 2019.

This set of local council seats was last contested in May 2021, when the Conservatives under Boris Johnson were at a high point after the UK’s Covid vaccine rollout, and the party enjoyed its strongest performance since 2008.

Speaking to Sky News in Harlow on Wednesday afternoon, Starmer said he had considered resigning as Labour leader after the “low, low point” of the 2021 local elections, but that he now felt vindicated.

Psephologists have predicted that the Conservatives could lose 500 council seats – about half of those the party is defending this time around.

Sunak said at prime minister’s questions that “people everywhere should vote Conservative”.

“Tomorrow voters will have a choice and it’ll be a choice between mayors like Andy Street and Ben Houchen, who are delivering, or mayors like Sadiq Khan, who just simply virtue-signal,” he told MPs.

Among the most closely watched contests will be the West Midlands and Tees Valley, where Labour hopes to unseat Street and Houchen.

Andy Street talks to woman at her front doorView image in fullscreen

Polling suggests the West Midlands contest is very close. YouGov puts the Labour candidate, Richard Parker, two points behind Street. Houchen is seven points ahead of his Labour rival, Chris McEwan, in Tees Valley, also according to YouGov.

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The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan is seeking a third term, and YouGov polling suggests he leads the Tory candidate, Susan Hall, by 22 points.

There are concerns in Downing Street that Sunak may face a leadership challenge if the Conservatives lose both the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties.

The business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, who is seen as a future leadership contender, insisted on Wednesday that there was no such prospect. She told Sky News: “I think there’s a lot of noise being made by people who want to get attention, but the prime minister has the full backing of the cabinet, he has my full backing.”

If the Conservatives perform better than expected with Houchen and Street holding on, there is some speculation that Sunak could take the opportunity to call an early election this summer.

Labour suggested the mayoral election system favours incumbents, as it sought to manage expectations about victory in the two contests.

“If Andy Street and Ben Houchen do hang on, as seems highly likely, then it will be because they have managed to sufficiently distance themselves from the prime minister, not because he has provided any electoral coat-tails for them,” a party spokesperson said.

The Liberal Democrats, who have focused their campaigning efforts in traditional Tory areas, have said Thursday is a chance for voters to send a message to “this out-of-touch Conservative government”.

“In former Conservative heartlands like Tunbridge Wells, Dorset and Wokingham voters are switching to the Liberal Democrats,” the party’s leader, Ed Davey, said. “Every vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to elect a strong local champion who will fight for a fair deal for you and your community.”

Source: theguardian.com