Who’s really up and who down? A survival guide to the local elections

This weekend, will Boris Johnson claim to be a latter-day Lazarus? Will Labour predict that Keir Starmer is on his way to Downing Street? Will the Greens and Lib Dems boast that they have broken through?

The answer to all these questions may well be “yes”. Local elections week has its own special rhythm. Ahead of polling day, each party uses private briefings to lower expectations; afterwards it uses every public outlet it can to exaggerate its performance. Each brags about local victories in some councils, while discounting losses elsewhere.

Ignore all that. Here is my survival guide for following the election results. I looked at seven key councils in an analysis for the Guardian, and the targets for the party leaders in a blog for Prospect.



Controlled by the Conservatives since 1978, Wandsworth has been the Tory’s flagship borough ever since it decided in 1990 that it didn’t need to levy the poll tax locally, and defied a big national swing to Labour in that year’s local elections. Recently, however, the area has been drifting left, politically. All three off the borough’s MPs are now Labour, including Fleur Anderson in Putney, which was the only seat the party gained from the Tories in 2019. The real doubt this time is whether Labour will scrap in, or win comfortably. A Tory victory this time would be as big a sensation as it was 32 years ago.


This was a Labour target last time, in 2018. Instead, the Conservatives increased their majority on the 63-seat council from one to 13. Labour suffered here more than anyone else from the controversies over anti-semitism and Jeremy Corbyn. A Labour victory this time would be the best evidence that the party has put these troubles behind it.


The basic outcome is not in doubt: Labour will hold the council, as it has done over since its creation in 1973. The voting figures will, however, indicate whether the Conservatives are holding onto its gains in “Red Wall” England. Imran Ahmad Khan, who captured the parliamentary seat in 2019 with a majority of 3,358 has resigned, following his conviction for assault. If Labour wins a clear lead in the wards that make up the parliamentary seat, it could signal a Labour gain in the coming by-election – and the chance of other “Red Wall” gains at the next general election.


Worthing illustrates one of the demographic and social trends across parts of southern England: the influx of younger, often professional, families with liberal values looking to buy houses they can afford. Labour used to regard such places as hopeless. As recently as 2016,the party had no councillors in Worthing. Now control of the council is within reach. After last year’s elections, Labour had 15 of the town’s 37 councillors. It gained a 16th in a by-election last November, when the council moved from a Conservative majority to No Overall Control; a defection took the total to 17. Labour needs two more gains for outright victory.


Portsmouth was a Labour City at the height of New Labour’s popularity, but in recent years the battle for control has been between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Following last year’s elections, the Conservatives had 16 councillors and the Lib Dems 15. Despite having fewer councillors, the Lib Dems have been running a minority administration. Twenty-two councillors are needed for an outright majority – just about possible for either party. But if one of them gains enough wards to come even close, this will tell us who is gaining ground in the contest between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in southern England.


Labour lost eight seats last year; as a result, the council slipped to No Overall Control. Three Labour gains would restore control in this 84-seat council – but as none of the 28 seats up for election this week are being defended by the Conservatives, Labour’s battle is with the Lib Dems (who emerged from last year’s election with 29 councillors) and the Greens (13).

Sheffield, then, is a testbed for the battle among the Left and centre-left parties to dominate the anti-Conservative vote. Keir Starmer will be hoping that his attempts to win back older “Red Wall” voters by tacking right on Europe and immigration won’t offend the younger and more liberal-minded voters he also needs in major cities such as Sheffield.

Sheffield is of special interest to the Greens. For the past year they have shared power with Labour. Will they be rewarded for the role they have played – or punished, as Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems were nationally when they entered into coalition with the Conservatives?


Scotland’s council elections this week differ from England’s in two ways. They were last fought in 2017 rather than 2018; and seats are allocated by a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote. This means that few council are won outright. Historically, Glasgow was a Labour City, but the SNP just came top in 2012 and extended their lead in 2017 to 11 per cent in the vote, and won 39 (out of 85) seats, to Labour’s 31. A good result for Labour would be to overtake the Conservatives across Scotland as a whole, and to regain first place from the SNP in Glasgow.


  • Neck-and-neck with Labour in the projected national share of the vote. Labour has been ahead in every equivalent set of local elections in the past 40 years (that is, when the Conservatives have been in government, two years before the following general election). Neck-and-neck this time would be a big achievement for the Tories
  • Net gain in seats. 2018 was the last time most of this year’s seats were fought. The Tories would love to improve on that baseline
  • Hold all seven (out of 32) London boroughs that the party is defending
  • Gain Plymouth, St Albans, North Herts, Peterborough, Southend, Tunbridge Wells
  • Retain support in “Red Wall” areas such as Barnsley and Sunderland
  • Beat Labour in the wards that make up the parliamentary constituencies of Uxbridge (where Johnson is the MP), Bury North (whose MP has crossed the floor from Tory to Labour), and Wakefield (by-election pending in this Tory marginal)
  • Keep second place in Scotland, ahead of Labour.


  • A lead of at least 8 per cent in the national vote share
  • Net gain of 250 seats. (Most of this week’s local elections are in strong Labour area, such as London, big metropolitan cities, South Wales; so the scope for further gains is real but limited)
  • In London, Labour could win up to four boroughs from the Conservatives: Barnet, Wandsworth, Hillingdon and Westminster. One gain: pass the hemlock. Two: get out the beer. Three:  enjoy a glass of Prosecco. Four: celebrate with vintage champagne
  • Win outright in Worthing (for the first time ever), Southampton and a raft of northern councils, including Sheffield, Stockport, Burnley, West Lancashire, Kirklees and Rossendale
  • Make significant advances in Hull, Calderdale, Hastings and Stevenage, which Labour currently controls with small majorities
  • Overtake the Conservatives in Scotland – and the SNP in Glasgow.


  • 20 per cent share of projected national vote. In most years between 1982 and 2010, his party exceeded 20 per cent in local elections, where it usually outperformed its opinion poll rating. It came close in 2017 (18 per cent) and last year (17 per cent). Twenty per cent or more would show that the Lib Dems are back in business.
  • Net gain of 100 seats. The places matter as much as the numbers. Will the Lib Dems eat away at the Tory vote in the south as well as challenging Labour in the north?
  • Win outright in Hull, Portsmouth, Stockport; become the largest party in Sheffield
  • Win decisively in St Albans – captured last year with a majority of 2.


  • The co-leaders of the Green Party will be looking for a net gain of 100 seats. Before 2019, fewer than 200 of Britain’s 20,000 councillors were Greens. Big gains in 2019 and last year took them close to 500. A further 100 gains would show they are maintaining their momentum. (Their projected national vote share means little, as they contest only a minority of wards.)
  • Gain seats in Sheffield and Norwich, two cities where they have a significant presence and need to consolidate their role as a major local force.

Alert readers will have spotted that Sheffield appears on three wish-lists and Hull and Stockport on two. This is because the Conservatives have been marginalised in all three cities, and the big battle is between Labour and the Lib Dems.