Key local council elections to watch for clues on our general election chances – LabourList

Local elections offer a window into the mood of the nation – making this year’s set of elections all the more interesting ahead of a likely general election later in the year.

These locals will offer insights into how Labour is faring in seats that could prove crucial to it securing a majority, albeit the picture is often complicated by specific local issues and differing voting patterns at the national and local level.

Here’s our rundown of some of the councils worth keeping an eye on as we (inevitably) look ahead to the general election:

Swindon

Labour took control of Swindon council last year, ending almost two decades of Conservative rule in the south-west town. The current state of the parties is 32 Labour councillors, 23 Tories and one Liberal Democrat, with the last seat on the council currently lying vacant. The question at this year’s locals will be whether Labour can hold on to the gains it has made in recent years or even make more, with 15 Tory seats up for election and just five Labour.

Both of the town’s constituencies were held by Labour throughout the New Labour years before being won by the Tories in 2010, and the party will have high hopes of returning two Labour MPs at the general election off the back of last year’s locals.

South Swindon looks more winnable based on the 2019 result (the Conservatives’ majority in the seat is 6,625 compared to more than 16,000 in North Swindon), but Electoral Calculus is currently projecting Labour victories in both seats, taking into consideration boundary changes. Labour’s candidate in South Swindon is former MP for Lewisham East Heidi Alexander, while local councillor Will Stone has been selected to contest North Swindon.

Colchester

Colchester council is currently finely balanced, with 19 Tory councillors, 16 Liberal Democrats, 13 Labour, two Greens and one vacancy, led by a Liberal Democrat administration. With only a third of seats up for grabs and minimal movement between the parties at last year’s locals, a radical shift in the balance on the council may be unlikely. But a positive performance for Labour would bode well for the general election, when the party will be hoping to take Colchester from the Tories – a seat it has not held since 1950.

Colchester has been represented in parliament by the Tory MP Will Quince since 2015, who won a majority of 9,423 votes in 2019. Quince will be standing down at the next election, however, with Olympic rower James Cracknell chosen as the Tory candidate. Labour’s candidate is local councillor Pam Cox.

Worcester

Dmitrijs Kaminskis / Shutterstock

Worcester is currently jointly led by Labour and the Greens, with Labour the largest party on 13 councillors, followed by the Greens on 11, the Tories on seven and the Liberal Democrats on four. But with all-out elections this year following boundary changes, the balance of the parties could shift significantly following the locals. Last year’s elections saw Labour gain one seat and the Greens gain four, while the Conservatives’ total fell by seven.

Worcester has been a bellwether seat since 1979, meaning a Labour victory in the constituency at the general election would be a strong indicator that the party was on its way into government. Its current Tory MP Robin Walker has represented the seat since 2010, with his majority rising to 6,758 at the last election. Labour’s candidate in the seat is Tom Collins, a former councillor on Worcester City Council.

Though a considerable presence at the local level, the Greens are not currently projected to challenge at the general election, according to Electoral Calculus, which is currently predicting a comfortable Labour gain.

Thurrock

Thurrock council has long been in the spotlight over its financial troubles, having effectively declared bankruptcy back in 2022. The local authority is currently Conservative-led, but Labour made notable gains at the last local elections and are now just four councillors shy of the Conservatives’ total of 23. And, as highlighted by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), the council has a “long history of flipping between both parties and landing in no overall control”.

Looking at the national picture, the Tories are currently sitting on what would appear to be a fairly comfortable majority of 11,482. But the party’s margin of victory in the seat has been far narrower in previous elections – and was just 92 votes when it gained the seat from Labour in 2010. Electoral Calculus is currently projecting a comfortable victory for Labour’s candidate Jen Craft, a former campaign manager for Margaret Hodge MP.

Bolton

Labour became the largest party on Bolton council at last year’s local elections, though just missed out on seizing overall control. This marked the latest stage in Labour’s fight back in the north-west town, with the party having lost the council to no overall control back in 2019. The current make-up of the council is 28 Labour councillors, 15 Conservatives, seven Liberal Democrats and nine councillors representing two separate local parties.

The council area covers three parliamentary constituencies, two of which are currently held by the Conservatives, Bolton North East and Bolton West, and one that is held by Labour, Bolton South East. The two Tory-held constituencies are far from straight-forwardly ‘Red Wall’ seats. Both seats elected Tory MPs through most of the 1980s and 1990s, before being taken by Labour in 1997. Bolton West was then won back by the Tories in 2015, while Labour held on to Bolton North East until 2019.

Labour’s candidate for Bolton North East is Kirith Entwistle, while Manchester City councillor Phil Brickell has been chosen to contest Bolton West. They will be looking to overturn Conservative majorities of 378 and 8,855 votes respectively.


Lord Hayward’s annual briefing to journalists on the local elections was a useful resource in pulling this list together. As well as identifying some of the above councils as ones to watch ahead of the general election, he also highlighted the following local authorities as interesting contests for Labour or other parties.

  • Basildon
  • Bristol
  • Burnley
  • Dorset
  • Dudley
  • Gloucester
  • North East Lincolnshire
  • Reigate and Banstead
  • Rochdale
  • Sheffield
  • Walsall
  • Wokingham

The Tory peer and pollster also identified the following constituencies as of interest during this local elections to Labour or other parties, in addition to some of the constituencies mentioned in this piece:

  • Great Grimsby and Cleethorpes
  • Gloucester
  • Welwyn and Hatfield
  • Earley and Woodley
  • Southend East and Rochford
  • Halesowen
  • Nuneaton
  • Dudley
  • Dorking and Horley
  • West Dorset
  • Wokingham

The LGIU’s ‘Ones to Watch 2024’ briefing also provides a useful explainer on the key contests of this year’s local elections. Alongside some of the councils discussed in this piece, contests they identify as interesting for Labour include Hyndburn, Crawley, Cannock Chase and Kirklees.


Read more of our coverage of the 2024 local elections here.

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