With all results declared, the key takeaway from the 2023 local election was voters across England casting their votes for parties other than the Conservatives, from the red wall to the blue wall.
The Conservatives comfortably reached the worst case scenario predictions, with over 1,000 councillors and 48 councils lost up and down the country. For the first time since 2002, Labour was returned as the biggest party in local government, with over 500 additional councillors elected and 22 new councils now under their control. The other winners at the polls were the Liberal Democrats, winning 12 councils from the Conservatives.
England Local Election Results, May 2023
At Centre for Cities, we are interested in the geography to the results which show a pattern of Labour increasing its vote across the country, having its largest increases in the North and Midlands. The Conservatives are losing votes fastest in the South, while the Liberal Democrats held on solidly to their support in these regions.
The Labour Party will be reassured by their success in securing a vote distribution more efficiently across the country, with Labour Leader Keir Starmer said to have told his weekly cabinet meeting “the fact that Labour won in all parts of the country was a sign of the strides we have made.”
This represents a move away from the previous Labour trend of securing safe parliamentary seats in big cities, to instead having its strongest vote returned in working class, former Brexit heartlands that are home to fewer university graduates, as we saw in Stoke-on-Trent and Blackpool. This shows the party reversing recent electoral trends and cutting through in seats won by Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election. The party also seized various councils in Southern England, including Swindon in the South West and Medway in the South East.
Meanwhile the Conservatives lost councillors in almost every region of England, with the biggest decreases in the South East, East and Midlands. The party also saw support fall in areas with higher levels of graduates in Remain-voting areas, where voters tend to be younger and professional. The party’s biggest losses were in East Hertfordshire and Bracknell Forest, where 27 seats apiece were lost. Their largest gains were in Leicester, where they gained 17 councillors, and in Slough, where they took control of the council from Labour, an authority who has been troubled with bankruptcy in recent times.
Southern Conservative losses were often in areas where the Liberal Democrats are the main rivals. This was seen with the party taking authorities previously entrenched in the blue wall such as Surrey Heath, Stratford-on-Avon and Windsor and Maidenhead, many of these being constituencies home to high-profile Conservative MPs.
Looking at what comes next, and with a general election guaranteed in the next 18 months, political pundits have extrapolated the data from these local elections to show scenarios for the next Westminster government – largely of a hung parliament with a Labour minority government. However, a mix of local versus national issues, the unstable future for Scottish politics, and the way to which each party responds to these results will make for an unpredictable period in British politics.
Key Urban Battlegrounds Revisited
Following the blog we posted before the elections, setting out the Key Urban Battlegrounds to watch, we have provided an update on each result below.
Swindon – LABOUR GAIN
The symbolic location of Labour’s local election launch in Swindon delivered a symbolic result for the party in the form of a Labour gain. Voters here deserted the Conservatives at the ballot box at this local authority for the first time in 20 years.
Conservative Group Leader David Renard also lost his seat, ousted in favour of a Labour candidate who gained a majority of over 650 votes. Renard said of the results “This is a result following a pattern being seen across the country, and many people are voting on national issues and not local ones.”
The town will remain a key target at the upcoming general election, with Labour keen to pick up the town’s two seats, currently represented by two current Conservative MPs.
Plymouth – LABOUR GAIN
Plymouth saw Labour gain an outright majority on the council, winning 15 of the 19 seats that were up for election, allowing the party to take control from the Conservatives.
Labour Group Leader Tudor Evans called the results “a seismic shift in politics in Plymouth.” While Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View – Johnny Mercer – called it a “really terrible” night for his party, he also cited infighting in the local Conservative group and the recent churn of Conservative Council Leaders as explanations for the results.
Stoke-on-Trent – LABOUR GAIN
Prior to the elections, Stoke-on-Trent City Council was being run by the Conservatives in a minority administration but, with the party going on to lose 8 seats, control of the authority was handed to Labour for the first time since 2015.
A win here in red wall territory was important for the Labour Party, who put a great amount of resource into the campaigning in the city, and ensured candidates were chosen early to allow maximum time for campaigning. The campaign also featured many high-profile visits, with even Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves door knocking in the final hours before polling closed. The party will now be focused on reclaiming the city’s three parliamentary constituencies, which are now all represented by Conservatives.
The city is a key location in the Conservative’s levelling up agenda and the Government has committed to moving 500 Home Office jobs to the area, so we can wonder the extent to which progress – or a lack of thereof – played in voters’ minds as they casted their votes.
Dartford – CONS HOLD
Dubbed as “one to watch” in these local elections, with the possibility of the longstanding Conservative majority here being overturned, this did not prove to be the case, with most wards staying the same and the ruling Conservatives winning 29 seats to Labour’s 11, no doubt proving a relief to the party.
Gravesham – LAB HOLD
Labour has retained control of Gravesham Borough Council, winning 22 of the 39 seats, with the opposition taking 17. Elsewhere in Kent, Labour also won the council of Medway, taking power from the Conservatives for the first time in 20 years, with Labour Leader Keir Starmer saying “You didn’t just get it over the line. You blew the doors off.”
Bolton – NO OVERALL CONTROL
Labour has replaced the Conservatives as the largest party on Bolton Council, although it was not enough to secure an overall majority, and the authority remains under no overall control. All-out elections took place with 60 seats up for election – 26 of which went to Labour and 17 to the Conservatives.
Brighton and Hove – LAB GAIN
The historic pattern of minority administrations at Brighton and Hove has been put on hold with Labour being returned as the largest party, increasing its seat share from 16 to 38. The Greens – previously the largest party – went from 20 seats to only 7, marking their worst result since 2003, and losing their Leader and Deputy Leader. Yet, outside of Brighton, the Greens have been making gains and won their first ever majority-controlled council in Mid Suffolk.
Middlesbrough – LAB MAYOR
Labour’s Chris Cooke won the race to become Middlesbrough’s Mayor with 10,956 votes, just 760 votes ahead of incumbent Independent Andy Preston, who gained 10,196 votes. Again, this result will be seen as a sign in Labour’s efforts to make gains in previous Labour heartlands.
Cooke has vowed to ensure the council becomes “a service-led organisation” and wants to make sure the council becomes more connected to its communities. He also expressed concern over low turnout – which was only 27.75% – saying more effort was needed to engage people in democracy.
With this set of local elections testing Labour’s ability to win back seats in towns and cities in the Red Wall and beyond, we’ve picked out some of the key urban contests to have on your radar as voters head to the polls on 4 May.