Freshwater’s public affairs team looks at the issues in play during this week’s elections and what they mean for next month’s general election.
While this week’s local and mayoral elections have been rudely overshadowed by the announcement of a snap general election, the issues in play and the electorate’s decisions will be significant for the country’s political landscape in their own right. They may also act as a barometer of how the general election might play out.
Local elections in non-election years usually lead to gains for the opposition party, with the electorate often inclined to vote against the government of the day. On the other hand, when local elections are held on the same day as a general election, the local results tend to look similar to the parliamentary results as voters vote ‘down ticket’ - for the same party in all ballots. This year’s elections are neither in a non-election year, nor on the same day, so it is harder to predict the impact the results could have on the UK Parliament. Nevertheless, with the general election campaigns now in full swing, most commentators expect to see a council and mayoral election picture on 5 May which tells us something important about what to expect come 9 June.
Thursday’s elections will be the inaugural vote for a number of new ‘Metro Mayors’ across the country - a product of successive governments’ ongoing pursuit of a devolution agenda. The largest two regions electing mayors for the first time are Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. While the past year has shown that you can’t predict anything in politics, the race to be mayor of Greater Manchester, a city which has been Labour-controlled since it was made into a metropolitan council borough in 1974, has appeared to be somewhat of a coronation for Andy Burnham. While the mayor’s constituency will include regions around the city which are less red-leaning, Burnham will be confident of victory. With the development of transport policies such as Northern Powerhouse Rail and the incorporation of the second phase of HS2 into the city, his election comes at a time when substantial transport and infrastructure investment is coming into the region - investment the next mayor will be keen to capitalise upon in their first term, to 2020.
On the other hand, the race to be the first mayor for the West Midlands is hotly-contested. Many commentators are now predicting a result in complete contrast to the one predicted 12 months ago. The region is traditionally a Labour stronghold and the party would have been confident of winning the mayoralty for an area which includes the UK’s second city. However, some Labour seats in the region turned blue in 2015 and the Conservatives are targeting a number of previously-safe Labour seats in June’s general election - the Euroscepticism of much of the West Midlands electorate is likely to play into the Tories’ hands.
A poll for the Birmingham Mail in April showed Labour’s Siôn Simon and the Conservatives’ Andy Street neck-and-neck on 33% for first preference votes, with Simon leading on second preferences. Many commentators prefer to trust bookmakers over pollsters and if they are to be trusted, Street was a slight favourite with a week to go before the vote. While local polling is a tough science, and much can change between polling and election day, the race is expected to be tight throughout.
Interestingly, Street’s campaign has sought to distance itself from the party he is representing. Instead, the former John Lewis boss has been leveraging his business profile and the positive associations many have with his former employer - including in a consistent use of ‘John Lewis green’ in his promotional materials. Certainly, Street’s networking skills have been effective in raising enough campaign funds to outspend his rival by around 100%. The question is, how well known is he within the general West Midlands population and the power of his brand enough to overturn Labour’s historical embeddedness in the region?
Four other areas are also deciding their first elected mayor later this week. Steve Rotheram, formerly Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary, is expected to comfortably win the race to be mayor for the Liverpool City Region, and Labour’s Sue Jeffrey is also expected to triumph in the election for mayor of the Tees Valley. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are expected to gain the mayoralty of the West of England, with the electorate of Bristol playing a large role in this. Lastly, the combined region of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough will also be voting for its first elected mayor. Here, the Conservatives’ candidate James Palmer is expected to achieve a comfortable victory with a high possibility that a run-off won’t even be needed.
All six new mayors will have access to a 30-year investment fund of varying levels which can be used to fund economic and infrastructure priorities aimed at improving the economic outlook for their region, as well as increased control over transport and planning decisions. One of the most prominent parts of the devolution agreements is the control of Greater Manchester’s £6bn integrated health and social care budget for its new mayor.
Elections will also be held in 34 councils in England, all 32 in Scotland and all 22 in Wales. Even more than the mayoral elections, it is these elections that are likely to offer us a glimpse of what’s to come after 8 May. Will the rise of the Tories and fall of Labour in Scotland at the last general election be replicated? Will the Conservatives’ targeting of Wales continue to result in the erosion of traditional support bases for Labour and Plaid Cymru?
Critical races include Cardiff, which is Labour controlled but was Liberal Democrat controlled until 2012, and Glasgow - a result which is likely to lead to the first time Labour has not controlled its council.
In most normal years, as it has been the official opposition for seven years, Labour would be expecting to make serious gains in the local elections and increase momentum for its general election campaign. However this time round - and despite its performance in the last round of local elections not being as bad as many predicted - the party will be looking to confound the polls and cling on to as many councils as possible. The Liberal Democrats will target a number of pro-remain areas which are currently Conservative and Labour dominated, including Hertfordshire and Hampshire.
Download our briefing paper on the mayoral and local elections here.
Keep an eye on our website and @fwpublicaffairs as we post more analysis of the Metro Mayor, the local election results and the general election to follow.
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