U.K. Conservatives Hold Their Breath: How Bad Will Local Elections Be?

When voters in England and Wales go to the polls on Thursday to elect mayors and local council members, the outcome will inevitably be seen as a barometer for Britain’s coming general election. Given the sour public mood and the Conservative Party’s dire poll ratings, the storm clouds are already forming.

The big question is not whether the governing Conservatives will lose seats — that is a foregone conclusion among pollsters — but whether the losses will exceed or fall short of expectations after 18 months in which the Tories have consistently trailed the opposition Labour Party by yawning margins.

“If a party has been 20 points behind the opposition for 18 months, how much worse can it get?” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “The losses would have to be very, very bad for it to be viewed as a negative result for the Conservatives, and they are unlikely to be good enough for Labour for it to be viewed as a success.”

The magic number, Professor Travers said, is 500 council seats.

If the Conservatives, who are defending 985 seats in England, can hold their losses to below 500 seats, he said, the party faithful will probably accept that as a bruising but bearable setback. If Labour, which is defending 965 seats, and other parties grab more than 500 Tory seats, that could set off a fresh spasm of panic in the governing party’s ranks, even putting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s job in jeopardy.

In Blackpool, England. The big question is not whether the governing Conservatives will lose seats, but how many.Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

Professor Travers conceded that the 500-seat benchmark was arbitrary, a conceit of academics rather than a concrete measure of either party’s standing with the electorate. But in a local election, especially one so soon before a general election, intangible factors like momentum and mood are important.

By most accounts, the public’s mood remains dour and its anti-incumbent fervor fierce. The Conservatives are struggling with the same problems that have weighed them down for more than a year: a cost-of-living squeeze, a stagnating economy, rising mortgage rates and a crisis in the National Health Service.

With a few exceptions, the Conservatives, who have held power at the national level for 14 years, have been swept out of parliamentary seats in recent special elections held to fill vacancies. In a general election, which Mr. Sunak could call within weeks but is more likely to call in the autumn, polls are predicting a Labour landslide that could rival that of Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997.

In the last local elections, held a year ago, the Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats, a string of defeats across the country that dramatized the party’s problems and raised questions about Mr. Sunak, who had stabilized Britain’s economy after the turbulent 44-day tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss.

Little has gone well for him since then. While inflation has ebbed, Britain’s economy remains stalled and thousands of Britons are being jolted by higher mortgage rates. Fear of a looming election defeat has divided the party into feuding camps, with ambitious would-be leaders vying to replace Mr. Sunak if he is forced out.

“They’re fighting like rats in the sack,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “They are pursuing a culture-war politics that has little appeal to an increasingly tolerant electorate.”

Mayor Sadiq Khan of London and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, in the British capital on Wednesday. Mr. Khan, running for re-election, is ahead in the polls.Credit…Leon Neal/Getty Images

In such a febrile political atmosphere, however, two issues have come into focus in recent weeks — immigration and the Israel-Hamas war — that analysts said could play modestly to the Conservatives’ advantage.

Mr. Sunak recently won passage of a divisive law that would put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, in Central Africa. While legal and logistical challenges suggest it is unlikely that large numbers of people will ever be sent there, the policy is popular with the Conservative Party’s base.

On Wednesday, the British government said it had put a failed asylum seeker on a commercial flight to Rwanda. But that man left under a separate, voluntary program — not under the forced removals plan — and the government paid him 3,000 pounds, about $3,750, to leave.

No asylum seekers have yet been removed forcibly, despite Britain’s already having paid hundreds of millions of pounds to Rwanda. That figure undercuts Mr. Sunak’s claim that the policy will be a cost-effective deterrent for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who cross the English Channel every year in small boats.

Still, the announcement Wednesday was the first sign of movement on irregular immigration, which analysts said could reassure disenchanted Tory voters. It could also help the party fend off a challenge from Reform U.K., an anti-immigration party affiliated with the populist Nigel Farage.

Israel poses a challenge to Labour because of unhappiness among local Labour politicians about how long it took for the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, to call for a cease-fire in Gaza. Mr. Starmer, who has worked to root out a legacy of antisemitism in the party’s ranks, has struck a delicate balance since the Hamas-led attacks of Oct. 7 and Israel’s military response.

But his measured approach has frustrated people on the party’s left, and particularly Muslims. Some Labour council members have renounced the party and are running as independents. That could hurt it in areas with large Muslim populations that are traditionally Labour strongholds.

Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, said, “If Muslims want to register a protest vote on Israel-Gaza, it’s kind of a risk-free protest vote.”

A pro-Palestinian rally in London on Wednesday. Israel poses a challenge to Mr. Starmer because of unhappiness among local Labour politicians about how long it took for him to call for a cease-fire in Gaza.Credit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There are limits, of course, to how much any local election can be a harbinger for a general election. Voter turnout is roughly half that in a general election. While national issues are important, local elections can be swayed by parochial concerns like garbage collection and the approval of planning permits.

The narrative in these elections is also likely to be driven by the results in three mayoral races: in Tees Valley, where a Conservative, Ben Houchen, is fighting for his political survival; in the West Midlands, where another Tory, Andy Street, is in a tight race; and in London, where the Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, is ahead in the polls but has generated little excitement among voters.

Professor Ford noted that Mr. Houchen and Mr. Street were both more popular than the Conservative Party as a whole. If that personal popularity enables them to overcome the deep disenchantment with their party and win re-election, it would be a victory, as well as a talking point, for the Conservatives.

“It would allow them to say, ‘Although we’re in the pits nationally, and our prime minister is not popular, where we’ve got popular politicians, we can still win elections,’” Professor Ford said.

That would be cold comfort for Mr. Sunak. But it might also spare him a leadership challenge, which could be brought on by worse-than-expected losses.

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