Local elections: The big electoral test for political parties ahead of general election

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen spoke to voters in Conservative and Labour strongholds ahead of next week's local elections in England

Next week’s local elections in England are particularly notable for two things:

  • Voters will, for the first time, need photo identification to vote;

  • They will be the last big electoral test before the next general election,

Although the introduction of compulsory voter ID has been controversial, polling experts don't expect it to have a big impact at next week's elections.

The thinking is that anyone who is politically engaged enough to vote in the local elections (and if you’re reading this, then that’s probably you) will already know they need ID and will have it sorted, ready to cast their vote on May 4.

The big question is though, what will the local elections tell us about the general election expected next year?

To understand that, we have to bear in mind that the last time these 8,000 or so council seats were fought over was in May 2019.

At that time, Theresa May was leading the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn was leading Labour, and neither big party did particularly well. The Tories did score some successes, however.

In Darlington, they became the biggest party on the council and formed a minority administration for the first time in 40 years.

When Boris Johnson then took over as Conservative leader, he swept Corbyn’s Labour aside across the northern ‘Red Wall’ in the December election.

A local election polling station in Darlington, in 2019. Credit: PA

So how well will the Tory vote hold up in Darlington?

When ITV News visited the market town in County Durham this week, there were Tory voters who were going to switch to Labour and others who were going to vote Independent.

On that basis, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might struggle in the former ‘Red Wall’. But Labour needs to win back more than just the North of England - or at least they need the Tories to lose elsewhere.

There is often talk now of a ‘Blue Wall’ in the South of England, and when Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey clung onto a tractor as it knocked over a wall of blue hay bales last month, the message was clear; the Lib Dems are coming.

Another target is Cherwell Council in Oxfordshire. There, too, we met some disillusioned Conservatives this week.

Liberal Democract leader Ed Davey launched the party's local election campaign by driving through a tower of hay bales. Credit: PA

Like Tories up and down the country, they are deeply unimpressed with their party’s performance over the past couple of years. But they haven’t decided to desert the Conservatives just yet.

The task for Mr Sunak over the next seven days is to persuade these soft Tories that he has turned things around and that, despite their misgivings, they should turn out to vote Conservative. We will know if it has worked if the Tory losses can be kept down to below 500 seats.

Labour, on the other hand, need to be gaining more than 500 seats to show their poll lead can translate into real votes when the general election is held. The answer should become clear over the following weekend - at least for the politically engaged - while nearly everyone else will be enjoying the coronation of King Charles.

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