In 1997, Labour elected 22 MPs in the East of England. While it is unlikely that outcome will be matched at the next General Election, the party will need to return between two to three times the number they currently hold – five – if they are to form a majority Government.
Although the East of England may not return the same volume of Labour MPs as other nations and regions that make up the UK, its results could prove crucial in determining who enters Downing Street next year.
While polling and by-election results are a useful gauge of Labour’s future electoral prospects, a much stronger litmus test will be the upcoming local elections on Thursday. In fact, given the speculation of a May 2024 General Election, this might well be the last ballot box set of results we get before ‘the big one’.
Of course, the outcome of this year’s local elections, while a useful indicator, should be treated with caution. Voter turnout can be lower in comparison to a local election, people may vote differently locally to nationally, and ‘ground campaign’ activity can be concentrated in a different way depending on what priorities are. The imposition of Voter ID could also have a significant impact.
Nonetheless, this year’s results will provide a marker for the progress that has been made since 2019, and how much further Labour will have to travel to ensure multiple General Election successes in the East of England.
Norfolk and Suffolk: Labour’s coastal council challenge
Labour have enjoyed more than a decade in power on both Norwich City Council and Ipswich Borough, but it has been tougher going in other parts of East Anglia over the past decade or so.
Much interest at these local elections will fall on Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, two coastal towns which returned Labour MPs until 2010. Although the incumbent Conservative MPs sit on relatively healthy majorities, a strong showing from Labour could indicate that the tide is turning.
In Great Yarmouth, a gain of five seats would see Labour take power for the first time since 2015, and while the Party will find it more difficult to form a majority on East Suffolk Council (which Lowestoft falls under), increasing its share of councillors will boost confidence that a General Election victory is more than achievable, especially given the forthcoming boundary changes.
Despite it being unlikely that there will be a dramatic number of seats changing hands in Norwich and Ipswich, results on Thursday will provide an insight into the status of some of the region’s most marginal constituencies.
Essex: Solid gains on offer, but Labour-majority councils unlikely
With Thurrock in financial turmoil, all eyes will be on this year’s elections to see if the Conservative-administration will pay the price at the ballot box. However, given only a third of seats up for grabs this year, it would require a near-landslide for Labour to form a majority administration this time around.
There are, however, other important contests happening all over Essex, with every district and unitary council in the county holding elections.
In both Colchester and Southend, Labour are currently the second-largest party, but are part of a coalition on both councils. While the Party will be looking to grow their support base this year, it is unlikely that they will be able to secure an outright majority, but can be confident of leading power-sharing administrations post-May.
Labour lost control of Harlow in 2021 after running the Council for nearly a decade, and it will be a tough task to wrestle back power. However, although it won’t be enough to form a majority this time, a positive result would put the Party back on the right track locally.
Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire: Progress beyond Labour Strongholds
Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire already have the strongest Labour representation in the East of England – the Party currently has four MPs and firm control of two councils across Bedford, Cambridge and Luton.
There is unlikely to be any significant change in Cambridge or Luton, while Bedford is likely to remain in ‘no overall control’, as it has been for more than a decade. However, Bedford’s incumbent Labour MP, Mohammad Yasin, will be looking for signs that he is set to grow his majority next year, after winning by just 145 votes in 2019.
Outside these areas, Peterborough offers the most interesting contest, with a third of the council’s 60 seats up for grabs. While Labour are unlikely to be able to form a majority this time around – they would have to win almost every contested seat to do so – returning a healthy number of councillors will put the Party in a good position in a crucial battleground seat.
Hertfordshire: Different contexts, but Labour looking to chip away
This summer, elections will be held across 10 district and borough councils in Hertfordshire, a county which has seen three Labour parliamentary candidates selected in Stevenage, Watford and Welwyn Hatfield.
Stevenage Borough Council has remained Labour since its creation in 1974, but Labour will be seeking to further solidify their support, with Stephen McPartland – Conservative MP for since 2010 – standing down at the next General Election.
In Watford, the picture is altogether different, with the Liberal Democrats in firm control and Labour forming the opposition. There are currently no Conservative councillors, despite Dean Russell, the current MP, being elected in 2019. Labour councillor, and parliamentary candidate, Matt Turmaine, will be looking to make inroads.
Perhaps the most significant contest is in Welwyn Hatfield, where the Conservatives could feasibly lose control of the Borough Council with the loss of just three seats to Labour. Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, currently holds the seat with a majority just shy of 11,000.