A growing divide is predicted in this week’s local elections, with Labor on track to make gains in England’s cities but struggling to break through in former industrial centres.
Experts say there are ‘two elections’ at stake, predicting major urban areas could swing to Work due to the compression of the cost of living and the party door scandal; but Conservatives are more likely to hold in cities, particularly in the North and Midlands despite national headlines.
Sky News visited Wandsworth in south-west London, held by the Tories for 44 years but which could make a historic stint at work, and the town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, where the council was seized by the Tories during a landslide last year, to talk to voters.
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Around 40% of the council seats contested this week are in London, which will be a key test of Labour’s support under Sir Keir Starmer and the damage recent events have done to the government.
In Wandsworth, the ruling Tories – who have 33 councilors to Labor’s 26 and one independent – campaign as “local Tories” and are focused on council tax.
The borough is known to have one of the lowest average council taxes in the country and was the only local authority to lower it this year.
Lord Hayward, a Tory peer and polling expert, told Sky News a switch to Labor would have nationwide implications for both main parties.
“The competition there is the party against the low council tax,” he said.
“The loss of Wandsworth will impact the morale of the defeated party far beyond London’s borders and will have implications for the leadership of either party.”
If the Conservatives can’t stick to their message of low taxes and efficient services; and Labor cannot win while they are ahead in the national polls – the message to the leadership will be clear.
Tories also face challenges in the London boroughs of Barnet and Westminster, but Wandsworth is seen as the closest.
Although Labor says they do not expect to take Wandsworth this time around, they won more votes there than the Tories last battled for those seats in 2018, but fewer councillors.
“Heat or Eat”
On the ground, the cost of living was a key issue. Sky News visited a new baby bank opened by the charity Little Village, which provides essentials such as clothes, beds and pushchairs to new parents in need.
They expect to help more than 7,000 children referred to them this year, up from 6,000 last year, as pressure on living standards affects so many families locally.
Volunteer Alice Duncan said many families were looking for warm snowsuits for babies to wear inside because they couldn’t afford to keep the heating on.
“More and more what I’ve noticed is that a lot of the referrals are people who are working, maybe not full time, but even if they’re working they find they can’t reach both ends,” she said.
Speaking to shoppers in the nearby town of Clapham, Lesley, who works in a nursery, said she saw “a lot of families choosing what to spend their money on, heating or eating”.
Shakira, a software developer with a very young son, was angry at partygate and had a message for the Prime Minister: “I had a baby during lockdown. I had to be indoors all the time during you’re having the time of your life, and I can’t even get midwifery, I can’t access anything.”
A YouGov survey last week gave Labor a 27-point lead over the Tories – with a projected 50% share; 23% for the Conservatives, 12% for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens on 9%.
But that won’t translate to the kind of big gains needed to win a general election if it’s concentrated in towns and college towns. Studies in recent years have shown an alienation from the traditional Labor vote in cities.
These local elections will be a test of whether other sectors that have recently turned to the Tories hold their own despite Boris Johnson’s struggles.
Will Jennings, professor of political science at the University of Southampton, said Nuneaton, North Warwickshire, is a classic example of the Brexit-accelerated realignment of politics Labor is now battling in other areas .
“We can expect two elections,” he said. “In older, Brexit-friendly, socially conservative towns, somewhat against the national tide, the government could hold more places than expected. Labor is likely to make gains in big towns, but they risk accumulating votes and finding diminishing returns.”
Nuneaton and Bedworth City Council, on the southern edge of the so-called ‘Red Wall’, was under Labor control for most of the past five decades.
But the Conservatives came to power last year, winning 10 Labor seats. They now have 25 councilors compared to six for the Labor Party.
Council leader Kris Wilson said the party gate was mentioned as a diversion by just two voters – and others had defended the prime minister. Mr. Wilson, whose grandfather was a miner in one of the many collieries in the area, gives some insight into the town’s changing loyalties.
“He would have rolled over in his grave had he known I was a Tory, let alone a Tory leader of the council,” he said.
Mr Wilson took over as leader in 2014, when the Tories had three advisers.
“It was a remarkable change in circumstances in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
The Tories are announcing a major regeneration of the town center – which will see a new hotel, business center and cafes replace empty shops.
It was given the go-ahead in 2018, before taking over, but attracted £50m in new funding from three central government ‘race to the top’ schemes.
Labor councilor Chris Watkins, whose party is hoping for modest gains, has seen a generational shift.
“It’s hard to understand,” he said. “That we have so many deprivation zones in this borough…but we’ve gotten really blue.”
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