A general consensus has gripped Westminster that – whisper it – Rishi Sunak may be quite a competent Prime Minister.
Though he has some way to go to resuscitate his Party’s prospects for a General Election, Sunak has broadly kept his still fresh Downing Street operation away from scandal, whilst ticking off a number of his key priorities.
But upcoming local elections, scheduled in England for May 4th, will provide the first real electoral test for Sunak’s premiership.
The Conservative Party will be keen to manage expectations. Current opinion polls do not make for an easy read for the team in CCHQ, and it’s customary for voters to use local elections to take a stick to the governing Party. Preventing a Labour rout would be seen as a good result that just may take the wind out of the Labour Party’s sails – and dent the accepted wisdom that Sir Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister.
Sunak will be heartened by the response he has received in recent months from within his own Party. A survey by the ConservativeHome website has shown that Sunak’s approval amongst Conservatives has risen from 7.4% to 43.7% in light of recent victories.
Starmer’s Labour, however, are focusing attention on key target areas in order to cement that very narrative. In Stoke, where all seats are up for election and Starmer gave a recent speech on crime – three Parliamentary seats are currently Conservative and represent the kind of constituencies Starmer must win back should he be looking to get the keys to No 10. In Swindon, the Conservative Party has been comfortable since the early 2000s, but is looking vulnerable both at local and national level. Crucial districts such as Erewash and North East Derbyshire, where all seats are up for election, are the kinds of areas – relatively recently under Conservative control – that Labour will be eyeing keenly. The so-called ‘red wall’ seats, which North East Derbyshire is counted amongst, may have become something of a political cliché – but they do represent exactly the kind of target seats that the Labour Party must win back to gain a majority. Strong showings in those indicator seats will be another boost for Starmer’s Labour’s electoral hopes and expectations.
Though in the national picture there is little sign of a major Liberal Democrat revival, it would be naïve to count them out in their traditional playground – local elections. There is still a major sub-section of voter – tired of the Conservatives but never Labour – who Sir Ed Davey believes he can woo. A strong local elections showing, coupled with Rishi Sunak’s steadying of the Conservative ship, could raise questions about the voice the Liberal Democrats may have as kingmakers once again.
Broader trends are at play. The local elections in May will be the first time in the UK that voters are required to provide photo ID before entering polling booths. The requirements are broad – most kinds of identification are accepted or voters can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate as an alternative. Nevertheless, the move has attracted opposition – the Electoral Reform Society has referred to it both as an ‘expensive distraction’ and a ‘barrier to democracy.’ They cite evidence from the United States which indicates disadvantaged groups – historically more likely to vote Labour – are less likely to vote when voter identification is required. Indeed, when a similar scheme was first introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003, there was a 5% drop in turnout – though there was a quick return to normal levels soon after.
Local elections lack the pomp and ceremony of a General Election, but they are crucial in many ways – and for businesses it will be key to gauge the direction of Government. Should Sunak’s Conservatives be dealt a tough blow, they may consider a change of tack in coming weeks – and feel a need to go further, faster – rather than continue down the ship-steadying, cautious and conservative path currently chartered.
Matthew Gillow, Senior Account Manager