Rishi Sunak has prepared his troops for the worst. “Good councillors will lose their seats” because of the “box set drama” of the past year, he warned them last night. Which box set drama the Prime Minister had in mind we are not privy to but he will be hoping it is not as brutal as Gomorrah, the TV mafia series set in Naples where one clan is felled after another in a series of devastating blows for the ruling family. Even buying up the local Mayors didn’t help. It certainly wasn’t the PM’s favourite TV series, Star Trek, where you can at least escape disaster through warp speed. 

But as far as one can tell, the results of today’s local elections for over 8,000 seats across 230 councils in England – that’s about two-thirds of the country’s local authorities as well as four mayoral posts up for grabs in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough –  are going to be bloody for the Tories. 

Yet maybe not as bloody as some of the more gloomy doomsters are predicting. Pollsters reckon that Labour will be hoping to secure a double-digit lead over the Conservatives. Matching Ed Miliband’s seven-point lead over the Tories in 2012 will not be enough to see Keir Starmer cruising into No 10 at the next general election.

Ideally, Labour needs to replicate Tony Blair’s success in the 1996 local elections to get the majority Starmer is hoping for. Anything less than a ten-point lead isn’t enough to convince commentators that he is heading for Downing Street. Though this is no small feat to achieve at local elections, especially given the percentage of the vote generally taken by independents. 

In terms of how this translates to seats, gains of 600 or more council seats would be a good result for Labour while fewer than 400 would be disappointing. As for the Tories, losing over a thousand seats would constitute a Gomorrah style wipe-out while a net loss of fewer than 500 could provide the first concrete sign that Sunak is en route to turning his party around. (The latest polls suggest that Sunak’s personal ratings are improving day by day.)

As for key regions, it’s especially important for Labour to do well in former Red Wall areas which switched loyalties so dramatically in 2019, such as Darlington and Middlesborough. 

 Turnout is traditionally low for local elections – and this year is unlikely to see any change – so you have to be wary of reading too much into the results. But there are always exceptions. As Nigel Farage showed so vividly with his UKIP party’s astonishing success in the local elections in 2012 when he gained 13% of the vote, they can change history. If UKIP had not won such a big share of the vote, it’s unlikely David Cameron would ever have called a referendum.

So ignoring local elections is only for fools, and they can give a taste for which way the wind is blowing.  They are also important in their own right: councillors are responsible for managing all sorts of public services that affect our daily lives – schools, care for the elderly and disabled, rubbish collection, fixing potholes in roads and so on. 

These council seats were last contested in 2019, shortly before Theresa May’s resignation, and at the height of parliamentary spats over Brexit. The two main parties were both deeply unpopular at the time meaning results were bruising for both Labour and the Tories. It was the Lib Dems, Greens and a variety of local and independent candidates who stole the show. This time it’s going to be fascinating to see whether Richard Tice’s Reform Party and the Social Democrat Party run by William Clouston gain many seats. 

The Lib Dems are hoping to do well again. They are particularly hopeful of breaking harder into affluent, remain-leaning commuter belt areas in the South. Daisy Cooper, the party’s deputy leader, sounds confident. “From Michael Gove’s backyard in Surrey to Theresa May’s in Windsor and Maidenhead,” the Liberal Democrats are “on the cusp of causing a major political upset.” Terrifying talk but the LibDems always tend to do well at locals as a protest vote but fail to replicate their success at national level. 

Even the Greens are cheerful: they are hoping to take control of Mid Suffolk, a feat that would create the only Green majority on a council in the northern hemisphere.

 But for now we can sleep easily. Only about 1,700 of the 8,000 plus seats up for grabs are being counted overnight, meaning the full picture of the state of the parties will only start to emerge later in the day tomorrow. So how brutal will the results prove to be ? Gomorrah or The Sopranos? We shall see. 

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