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The key races in the local elections

Votes in the Midlands and Hartlepool will set tone in Keir Starmer’s first major test as Labour leader

With Conservative sleaze allegations dominating the front pages for weeks, speculation is mounting about how the fallout could impact next week’s local elections.

The findings of a new YouGov poll for The Times should have calmed Tory nerves, with the Conservatives leading Labour by 11 points after the opposition dropped one point to 33. Boris Johnson’s party remains on 44, unchanged from a week ago, despite half of the total 1,803 respondents agreeing that the Tories are “very sleazy and disreputable”.

The polling suggests that the mounting allegations against Johnson and co. “are yet to cut through” with voters, says the paper - and that many of the most important races in next week’s vote are still likely to be tight.

1

Hartlepool by-election

Unlike the other local elections taking place across the UK next Thursday, voters in Hartlepool will be voting for both their local representatives and a new MP. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of scandal-hit Labour MP Mike Hill, with the Tories hoping to turn the seat blue.

Traditionally, opposition parties triumph in by-elections, but “old maxims do not seem to count for much now”, writes BBC Look North political editor Richard Moss, “and Labour is worried that it could lose” the seat, which the party has held since 1974.

Indeed, in the wake of the Tory victories across the “red wall” in the 2019 general election, the “idea that people in places like Hartlepool do not vote Conservative” has “bitten the dust”, Moss says.

The Economist argues that “there are plenty of reasons for voters to shun the Conservatives and elect a Labour MP”. But “Hartlepool will offer a clue as to whether Johnson’s revolution has stalled, or still has further to run”, the newspaper adds.

2

The mayoral seats

“Looking at the politics on the ground,” writes Politico’s Emilio Casalicchio, “the Conservatives should never have won the West Midlands mayoral race in 2017.” 

But win they did, with former John Lewis boss Andy Street - undoubtedly a bigger fan of the store’s furniture than Johnson and Carrie Symonds - beating Labour’s Sion Simon in the final round by 50.4% to 49.6%.

The current “race is too close to call at the moment”, Casalicchio says, but the Conservatives “might win it again” after “making a lot of gains in the area since”.

By contrast, the result of the London mayoral election looks to be a forgone conclusion. Sadiq Khan has had a clear lead in a series of polls, including a recent YouGov survey for the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London that puts the Labour incumbent on 47%, with Tory rival Shaun Bailey trailing on 26%.

Further north, a Tory victory in the Tees Valley mayoral election in 2017 was described at the time by regional news site TeesideLive as a “surprise defeat” for Labour. The result four years ago was close, though, so the vote outcome this time round should offer an insight into Starmer’s impact on voters.

The likely outcome of the upcoming election in Liverpool is also hard to call, after the race was “thrown into chaos” when the incumbent, Labour's Joe Anderson, “stood down as the party's candidate following his arrest” in December, the BBC reports.

Anderson was detained in an ongoing bribery and witness intimidation investigation, but denies any wrongdoing. He has been replaced in the race by Liverpool councillor Joanne Anderson - no relation - who is now gearing up for what she describes as “the most unpredictable election I've seen in my political career”.

3

The council seats

One of the biggest tests of Starmer’s popularity will be the number of local council seats that Labour secures.

“Local elections are like political health checks, telling us how Labour is faring and what - and where - it needs to improve,” writes the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush.

The 2017 local elections were a disaster for Labour, with then leader Jeremy Corbyn seeing his party lose seven councils and 382 seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives - led by Theresa May - romped home with an additional 11 council and 563 extra council seats. 

As the opposition now makes a fresh election onslaught under a new leader, Bush says that “Labour should be making gains from 2017 in the county councils, particularly those in marginal seats”, and “should, on a good night for the party, be able to show a widening of its support base”. 

However, both the Tories and Labour “have reasons to be nervous” ahead of the vote, says Sky News’ deputy political editor Sam Coates. Two years worth of local council elections, including some delayed as a result of the Covid pandemic, have been combined into “Super Thursday” in England.

And “elections at some of these councils last took place in 2016, pre-Brexit and less than a year after Corbyn was elected”, Coates notes. Others “were last up in 2017, when Corbyn was at a low point”, he adds - so predicting how next week’s votes will pan out is far from an exact science.

4

Scottish independence

Another key contest to watch on election night will be the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) performance north of the border. A total of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament are up for grabs, with polls suggesting that the SNP is on the verge of winning an overall majority once again.

If her party does secure the required 65 seats needed for a majority, Nicola Sturgeon’s party will claim “a mandate to hold a second independence referendum - the dominating issue of this year’s election”, The Scotsman reports. 

Alternately, if the SNP does not win a majority but voters return a “a pro-independence majority of MSPs” from across the SNP, Green party and Alba - Alex Salmond’s new party - the case may still be made for an independence mandate, the paper adds. 

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