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Simon Tiernan
| 7TH MAY 2024

Zeno Thinks: UK Local Elections – match report

As we enter the business-end of both the political and football seasons, pundits are now focused on the final breathless run to cross the line between both sets of Reds and Blues.

Like any good football match, last week’s political kick-off involved drama, controversy and plenty of hefty challenges. In just seven days we witnessed Humza Yousef’s step down as First Minister for Scotland, the first migrant sent to Rwanda and in the most dramatic moment of all, a series of local elections, with around 2,600 councillors elected across 107 councils in England, alongside contests for eleven directly elected mayors and a parliamentary by-election for the Blackpool South constituency. 

Back of the net

The UK General Election title race is already feeling a little like a victory lap, as Labour pulled off a commanding victory. Well clear of their rivals, the Reds picked up 186 councillors and control of another eight councils, outflanking the Conservatives in almost every department, who lost almost 500 council seats.

Equally momentous was the Reds success in the Blackpool South by-election. At 26% vote swing from Conservative to Labour was the third biggest achieved since World War II.

The Tories’ only lifeline came courtesy of Ben Houchen’s re-election as Mayor of Tees Valley. Yet his win - down 20% on the last vote - was the only thing preventing a metro mayoral clean sweep for Labour, and a dressing room mutiny for PM Rishi Sunak. 

Tactical analysis from the dressing room

Sunak has so far avoided becoming the fourth Tory Prime Minister to be cast-off in five years (a record rivalling Watford’s ill-fated managers, to stretch the footballing analogy) but he remains on the thinnest of ice. Any respite he would have received from an Andy Street mayoral victory in the West Midlands was snatched away at the death. After going to the electoral equivalent of VAR for a recount, Street lost out by just 1,500 votes. 

The Lib Dems enjoyed a strong week by adding over 100 councillors, yet it was the new kids on the block, Reform UK, that made a splash in the Blackpool by-election. Coming in just 117 votes behind the Tories, does leader Richard Tice have a point in proclaiming “we’re becoming the real opposition in the North to the Labour Party”?

Keir Starmer’s only real tactical headache came from election results in areas with large Muslim populations, such as Blackburn and Oldham, where Labour’s supportive stance towards Israel lost votes.  In the build-up to the General Election, Starmer’s international views will come under the microscope if the left of his party continues to ramp up their anti-war demands. 

Hairdryer treatment

Post-match analysis by political pundits has been bruising for Rishi and the Blues. Key themes from the media point to: 

Perception is king: The Conservative Party has now been in power for over fourteen years – keeping your match day offering fresh becomes a lot more challenging when forced to use a tired and aging bench. As Stephen Bush in the Financial Times argues, the next General Election will be “about the Conservative party’s platform and record, and their willingness to countenance voting for Sir Keir Starmer and Labour as the alternative.”

Focus on the future: Former Tory leader William Hague writes in The Times today that his Blues need to focus on tomorrow’s vision for the UK, arguing that “the future requires more security and more innovation – that’s where our politics and our economics need to go.” 

Slim hope for Rishi: The Prime Minister continues to play up the prospect of a General Election upset, arguing that a “hung parliament” is now the likely outcome. There’s been a focus on polling numbers, with former YouGov president Peter Keller arguing in The Guardian that Labour is not doing as well as it did in the run-up to the 1997 landslide victory, but that “it doesn’t need to do so in order to win a comfortable victory.”

Can they do it on a cold, wet night in Stoke?

Blackpool are known as The Tangerines, but red is the colour in the North West as Labour bolstered their Westminster ranks by registering their eighth by-election victory since the start of 2023. The ‘Red Wall’ famously turned blue at the last General Election however Labour will now be confident that the tide is turning. 

Another big result came in Hartlepool where Labour wrestled back control of its council from the Tories. The town has emerged as a key battleground in recent years with the Conservative victory in the 2021 by-election representing peak Boris-mania as the former PM hit the height of his powers.

Final score

The referee has blown the whistle, the fans are exiting the stadium, and the clean-up operation has begun, but what does this all mean for business and corporate organisations?

  • Expect a policy blitz: We understand that the Prime Minister is now going to embark on a policy barrage, announcing a range of new positions on subjects ranging from infrastructure, transport, culture and defence. It will be critical to remain alert to these announcements to understand how they may impact brands, and especially highly regulated ones.
  • A final financial event: We’re expecting Jeremy Hunt to deliver one more “significant financial event” ahead of the General Election later this year. With a more positive economic outlook including a dropping inflation rate and lower cost-of-living, we could see a pre-election tax giveaway such as an income tax reduction and a cut to stamp duty. The Chancellor hopes - like businesses - that consumers will have more money in their pockets, and this will bring a much-needed boost to the UK’s high streets. 
  • General Election scrap: The consensus is that the forthcoming General Election has the potential to be a dirty affair, with a focus on the leaders of the main political parties’ tax affairs, job histories and financial declarations. Definitely one to watch from the stands.