The morning after the night before: Early thoughts from the local election results

Image of polling station sign


By Matthew Kersey, Account Director at Incisive Health

Yesterday voters across much of England and Wales went to the polls to elect councillors, mayors, police and crime commissioners – and in Blackpool a new MP – to represent their interests locally. That is assuming they brought requisite photo ID with them of course.

A total of 2,728 positions were up for grabs and counts are due to continue throughout the rest of today and into the weekend – high profile names including Sadiq Khan, Andy Street and Andy Burnham will be kept waiting with varying levels of nerves until Saturday at the earliest. Though results are still coming in at time of publication, we are starting to get a clearer picture of the national storylines based on an intriguing set of early declarations.

It is important to remember the context that these seats have been fought in. The last time there were elections in the vast majority of these seats was in 2021, many of them delayed from their original date in 2020 due to the pandemic. 2021 was a high watermark for Boris Johnson – the wins for an incumbent governing party, which usually is expected to struggle in mid-term elections, were on the verge of unprecedented. The vaccine bounce – a wave of popularity enjoyed by the Government thanks to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine – was a key factor in an 8% swing of national vote share to the Conservative party, which enjoyed a shock win in the Hartlepool by-election on the same night, an area that had returned a Labour MP at every election since its creation.  

2024, of course, looks very different – we are on our second Prime Minister since Boris, and voting intention polling has flipped dramatically. This was always due to be a difficult set of results for the Government. However, there is very little sugar coating of results from the early Friday morning counts for Rishi Sunak, both in terms of the big prizes and the national picture playing out in local councils. Things could quickly change of course – early whispers from Teeside and West Midlands seem to suggest the Conservative incumbents may have been reelected.

Whilst things could soon change, the big story, for the moment, played out in Blackpool. Labour claimed the seat with a 26% swing – the third-biggest to the party at a post-war by-election. Our 24 in 24 report, examining Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to watch on health in 2024, profiled the victor Chris Webb, who looks likely to continue his strong history of mental health campaigning from the green benches. 

Labour’s gains didn’t stop there. The bellwether of Redditch went red, as did the traditionally Tory Rushmoor council in Hampshire. And what of Hartlepool, the site of Keir Starmer’s toughest night as Labour leader three years ago? Labour has re-gained the council, winning nine of the 12 seats up for grabs, consigning recent election nightmares to memory.

Still, it wasn’t a perfect night for Keir Starmer – the party lost control of Oldham council, which saw gains for independents standing on a platform criticizing Labour’s Gaza stance. As we saw in Rochdale earlier this year, this topic looks set to make the Opposition’s life difficult in localities across the country. Harlow was a key target for the party – Keir himself was campaigning in the area on the eve of the poll, signaling the party’s ambition – but efforts to flip it fell just a few votes short. A signal perhaps that messaging and tactics may still need sharpening yet.

Eyes on all sides will be on results to come, particularly the high-profile mayoralties where Conservatives Andy Street and Ben Houchen are hoping those early reports of their personal brands trumping the national party’s toxicity hold true. But what can we extrapolate from what we have now?

From a forecasting perspective, having validation that current polling is reflective of voters’ actions at the ballot box is helpful, particularly given the number of ‘don’t knows’ recorded in samples since Rishi Sunak took office. As it stands, and has been predicted for months, the Tories are facing down an electoral precipice that will benefit Labour primarily, as well as the other opposition parties. Liberal Democrats are waiting with bated breath at the count in Wokingham to if their chances of flipping Conservative held seats in the south are to become a reality.

Inevitably there will be questions about how many voters were looking to send a message to Westminster with their vote. The local picture never maps perfectly to a national election, partly as voters are more willing to tick the box of hard-working and visible councillors, even if the colour of their rosette doesn’t match the elector’s usual political home. That said, polling guru Sir John Curtice has taken to airwaves this morning to muse that if last night’s trends continue in the coming days, this looks to be an even worse set of results than last year’s local elections for the governing party, putting them on a difficult path ahead of the General Election. Sir John’s lesson is that you should compare local election results to local election results to get a sense of how they map to the national polls – it’s early days of course, but that confirmation is coming.

The Government will be trying to comfort themselves with the prospect of time reversing the tide – whether enough could change at this point to keep them in government, or simply limit losses, probably depends on if they are predisposed to seeing the glass half-full or half-empty.

Before an election is called, could there be a dramatic decrease in interest rates that drives a noticeable improvement in the cost of living? Flights to Rwanda going off without a hitch? Maybe England end 58 years of hurt in Germany this summer and Rishi is leading a rousing rendition of ‘Three Lions’ from the steps of 10 Downing Street? Stranger things have happened (probably).

Or, perhaps another round of Conservative machinations, rebellion, and leadership toppling is due. At the moment, rebels have yet to put their head above the parapet – even noted critic of the Prime Minister, Andrea Jenkyns, was downplaying talks of a leadership change this morning – but further losses may could see momentum build for a challenge. Time, as ever, will tell.

For more on Incisive Health’s 24 Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to watch on health in 2024, read here.