by Guy Benson
This year’s local elections represent the biggest set of local elections ever to take place in England at any one time, as a result of it being the combination of last year’s delayed elections alongside this year’s regularly scheduled contests.
Combine the dual sets of local elections with devolved elections in Scotland and Wales plus elections of Police and Crime Commissioners, Mayors, and the London Assembly alongside over 250 standalone council by-elections, its fair to say that politicos, party activists and election watchers will have plenty to chew over in the days that follow as the results (slowly) trickle in.
For all parties, these elections will represent not only the first electoral test since the 2019 general election but also by far the biggest test ahead of the next general election, currently pencilled in for 2024.
But amidst all the coverage of this bumper crop of elections in the media, county councils have often been ignored in favour of city battlegrounds or a focus on the ‘Red Wall’ – despite counties having huge powers, affecting vast numbers of people, and, most importantly for the readers of The Torch, holding some of our best prospects for Lib Dem gains this weekend.
In light of that, here is a preview of what the challenge looks like for the Lib Dems in the county councils this week.
Voters will go to the polls to elect 21 County Councils, all of which were previously up in 2017.
The number of County Councils being elected has been reduced from 27 in 2017 – since then three have been or are about to be abolished, to be replaced with unitary authorities (Dorset, Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire) while a further three have seen their elections pushed back a year as a result of proposed restructuring of local government in these areas (Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset).
Of the remaining 21, all are currently run by the Conservatives, albeit in two – Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire – Conservatives have had to form coalitions with independents in order to govern.
One thing to note is the fact that in a majority of these councils – 11 out of 21 – it is Liberal Democrats providing the main opposition, with Labour relegated to third place.
Though it seems unlikely Liberal Democrats would be able to take majorities in any of these councils in these elections, there are at least four where, if the Conservatives lost a small number of seats, it would see Liberal Democrats in a position to potentially be able to negotiate a coalition with other parties and independents.
For each of the counties I have listed the number of councillors elected for each party in 2017 as well as the districts that make up the lower tier of local government in each county area alongside how that lower tier district or borough council is currently governed. I’ve considered various regional and local independent groups as simply Independents.
I’ve split the analysis below into “Ones to Watch” – County Councils where on a good night for our party we have a realistic chance of taking control from the Conservatives and others.
County Councils: Ones to Watch
2017 Result: Con 36 LDem 15 Lab 7 Ind 3. Seats needed for a majority: 31.
Districts: Cambridge (Lab maj) East Cambridgeshire (Con maj) Fenland (Con maj) Huntingdonshire (Con maj) South Cambridgeshire (LDem maj)
Liberal Democrats have gained in strength significantly in Cambridgeshire since 2017.
In May 2018, we took control of one of the lower-tier district level councils (South Cambridgeshire) by a 30-11 margin, spectacularly reducing the Conservative group there from 36 councillors to 11.
In May 2019, we came agonisingly close to gaining control of a second district council (East Cambridgeshire), going from 2 councillors to 13 and reducing the ruling Conservatives from 36 to 15.
Then in December 2019, we came within 3,000 votes of gaining an MP here, more than doubling our share of the vote in South Cambridgeshire while posting gains in other seats.
Though it seems unlikely Liberal Democrats could gain a majority here, it seems very possible the Conservatives could lose theirs, potentially opening the door to a Lib – Lab coalition.
2017 Result: Con 30 LDem 11 Ind 5 Lab 4. Seats needed for a majority: 26.
Districts: Eastbourne (LDem maj) Hastings (Lab maj) Lewes (LDem-Grn-Lab-Ind maj) Rother (Ind-LDem-Lab-Grn coalition) Wealden (Con maj)
The current council makeup is not too dissimilar to Cambridgeshire, and in another similarity, we lost out on winning not one but two MPs here in 2019 by just a few thousand votes – around 2,500 votes in Lewes and 4,000 votes in Eastbourne.
We have run Eastbourne council with a significant majority since 2007 and in two other district councils, Lewes and Rother, form part of the ruling four-way coalition with Labour, Independents and Greens.
Given that the Conservatives can only afford to lose four seats here and the strong recent history of working with other parties on a local level, it seems a real possibility that Liberal Democrats would be able to put together a coalition if the Conservatives were to lose more than four seats.
2017 Result:Con 31 LDem 14 Lab 5 Grn 2 Ind 1. Seats needed for a majority: 27.
Districts: Cheltenham (LDem maj) Cotswolds (LDem maj) Forest of Dean (Ind-Grn-Lab coalition) Gloucester (Con maj) Stroud (Lab-Grn-LDem coalition) Tewkesbury (Con maj)
Conservatives won a narrow majority here in 2017, with four of the seats (enough to make the difference between a majority and no overall control) won by narrow margins of less than 60 votes over Liberal Democrat or Independent opponents. Within the six districts that make up this council, just two are currently governed by the Conservatives, with two governed by a Liberal Democrat majority and a further two run by coalitions. Cheltenham was also one of the disappointments of the 2019 general election, where Liberal Democrats came within 1,000 votes of knocking off the incumbent Conservative MP and will surely represent one of the top targets at the next general election. Liberal Democrats will be hopeful of making enough gains here to potentially be able to put together a coalition similar to the one which currently runs Stroud, albeit at the County level it would be Liberal Democrats, and not Labour, who would represent the major party.
2017 Result: Con 31 Lab 14 LDem 13 Ind 5. Seats needed for a majority: 32.
Cherwell (Con maj) Oxford (Lab maj) South Oxfordshire (LDem-Grn coalition) Vale of White Horse (LDem maj) West Oxfordshire (Con maj)
After the last local elections in 2017, the Conservatives were forced to enter into a coalition with some of the independents on the council in order to cobble together the majority they fell one seat short of gaining. Since then however, Liberal Democrats have gone from strength to strength, first gaining the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon (firstly by a majority of around 800 votes in 2017, which expanded to just under 9,000 in 2019) and then gaining control of not one but two district council, both in 2019 – in the Vale of White Horse, a 29-9 Conservative majority was flipped to a 31-7 Lib Dem majority while in South Oxfordshire the council went from 33 Cons, 1 Lab, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent to 12 Lib Dems, 10 Conservatives, 6 Independents, 3 Greens and 3 Lab councillors leading to a Lib Dem – Green coalition.
At the county level however, the arithmetic is slightly complicated for Liberal Democrats due to Labour’s dominance in Oxford – this meant that in 2017, Lib Dems finished third in the seat tally despite winning more votes county-wide than Labour.
This time around, the party will be hoping to not only leapfrog Labour but also challenge whether it might be possible to take an overall majority here (in what may be the best chance we have of being able to gain an overall majority on any County Council up for election in the country) – if a majority proves elusive though, enough gains could lead to either a Lib Dem minority or potentially deals with either Labour or Independent councillors.
County Councils: Others
2017 Result:Con 37 Lab 24 LDem 3. Seats needed for a majority: 33.
Districts: Amber Valley (Lab maj) Bolsover (Lab min) Chesterfield (Lab maj) Derbyshire Dales (Con maj) Erewash (Con maj) High Peak (Lab maj) North East Derbyshire (Con maj) South Derbyshire (Con maj)
Though there is not a significant Liberal Democrat presence on the council, there is a slim chance that if both Labour and Liberal Democrats pick up a few seats each, the council composition would be one where the few Liberal Democrat councillors would be able to play the role of kingmaker. Saying this, Derbyshire was a key part of the Conservatives winning “red wall” voter coalition in 2019, and Labour may therefore struggle to even hold onto their current representation.
2017 Result:Con 42 LDem 7 Lab 7 Ind 3 Grn 1. Seats needed for a majority: 31.
Districts: East Devon (Ind-LDem-Grn coalition) Exeter (Lab maj) Mid Devon (Con min) North Devon (LDem maj) South Hams (Con maj) Teignbridge (LDem maj) Torridge (Ind maj) West Devon (Con maj)
Though Conservatives seem likely to hold onto majority control here, one thing to watch will be which party – Liberal Democrats or Labour – are able to form the opposition. In 2017, Liberal Democrats lost two seats to end up tied with Labour on 7 seats a piece, though there were a significant number of near misses and, outside of Exeter where Labour dominate, the Liberal Democrats have a much more significant base across the county.
2017 Result:Con 56 LDem 7 Lab 6 Ind 5 Grn 1. Seats needed for a majority: 38.
Districts: Basildon (Con min) Braintree (Con maj) Brentwood (Con maj) Castle Point (Con maj) Chelmsford (LDem maj) Colchester (Lib Dem-Lab-Ind coalition) Epping Forest (Con maj) Harlow (Lab maj) Maldon (Con maj) Rochford (Con maj) Tendring (Con-UKIP-Ind coalition) Uttlesford (Ind maj)
Conservatives took a big majority here in 2017, after picking up the bulk of the seats that UKIP took in 2013 alongside a few Lib Dem and Labour seats too and are likely to retain it. Liberal Democrats will hope to put some breathing room between themselves and Labour by picking up seats around Chelmsford and Colchester, where we run the councils.
2017 Result:Con 56 LDem 19 Lab 2 Ind 1. Seats needed for a majority: 40.
Districts: Basingstoke and Deane (Con maj) East Hampshire (Con maj) Eastleigh (LDem maj) Fareham (Con maj) Gosport (Con maj) Hart (LDem-Ind coalition) Havant (Con maj) New Forest (Con maj) Rushmoor (Con maj) Test Valley (Con maj) Winchester (LDem maj)
My (current) home council is not one that I expect to change hands in this election, though pockets of strong Liberal Democrat support exist – notably in Eastleigh and Winchester – the former of which we have governed continuously with a majority since 1995 and currency hold 32 of the 39 available council seats and the latter of which we lost out on gaining an MP in 2019 by less than 1,000 votes. These areas of strength are by far counteracted by Conservative strength in the other areas of the County, and, with Labour being virtually non-existent at the county level, the chances of being able to wrestle the council into no overall control are slim to none.
2017 Result:Con 51 LDem 18 Lab 9. Seats needed for a majority: 40.
Districts: Broxbourne (Con maj) Dacorum (Con maj) East Hertfordshire (Con maj) Hertsmere (Con maj) North Hertfordshire (Lab-LDem coalition) St Albans (LDem min) Stevenage (Lab maj) Three Rivers (LDem maj) Watford (LDem maj) Welwyn Hatfield (Con min)
Conservatives have a strong majority here and would be considered heavy favourites to keep it, though there is still reasons to watch to see if Liberal Democrats (and Labour) could make enough gains to get this close to no overall control territory. Liberal Democrats have gained in strength in St Albans, taking control of the council (in a minority) in May 2019 before gaining the MP later that year. Pockets of local strength also exist in Watford and Three Rivers but the net 12 gains by opposition parties would still be a very tall order.
2017 Result:Con 67 LDem 7 Lab 5 Grn 1 Ind 1. Seats needed for a majority: 41.
Districts: Ashford (Con maj) Canterbury (Con maj) Dartford (Con maj) Dover (Con maj) Gravesham (Lab maj) Maidstone (LDem-Ind coalition) Sevenoaks (Con maj) Folkestone and Hythe (Con-Grn-Ind-LDem coalition) Swale (Lab-Ind-LDem-Grn coalition) Thanet (Lab-Ind-Grn coalition) Tonbridge and Malling (Con maj) Tunbridge Wells (Con maj)
Kent is the largest of all county councils, with a population of around 1.5 million people. Conservatives made major gains here in 2017, at the expense of UKIP who were reduced from being the main opposition (on 17 councillors) to not having any representation at all and Labour whose council group were more than halved from 13 to 5. Conservatives are heavy favourites to retain an overall majority here, with the major thing of interest to watch being who emerges as the main opposition.
2017 Result:Con 46 Lab 39 LDem 4 Ind 2 Grn 1 UKIP 1. Seats needed for a majority: 43.
Districts: Burnley (LDem-Ind-Con-UKIP-Grn coalition) Chorley (Lab maj) Fylde (Con maj) Hyndburn (Lab maj) Lancaster (Lab-Grn-Ind-LDem coalition) Pendle (Lab-LDem coalition) Preston (Lab maj) Ribble Valley (Con maj) Rossendale (Lab maj) South Ribble (Lab-LDem coalition) West Lancashire (Lab maj) Wyre (Con maj)
Home of the Speaker, this council was previously governed by a Labour minority between 2013 and 2017 before Conservatives won a majority last time around. At a district level it is home to some interesting coalitions – with a five-way coalition of Liberal Democrats, Independents, Conservatives, UKIP and the Greens governing Burnley and in Lancaster the administration involving an independent grouping known as the “Eco-Socialist Independents”. Unless Liberal Democrats or other smaller parties are able to make gains, it seems likely that this council will either remain under Conservative majority control or switch to Labour control.
2017 Result:Con 36 LDem 13 Lab 6. Seats needed for a majority: 28.
Districts: Blaby (Con maj) Charnwood (Con maj) Harborough (Con maj) Hinckley and Bosworth (LDem maj) Melton (Con maj) North West Leicestershire (Con maj) Oadby and Wigston (LDem maj)
Of the seven lower tier councils for this County, Liberal Democrats have governed Oadby and Wigston continuously since 1991 (most recently winning an impressive 24-2 majority in 2019) and also gained control of a second council, Hinckley and Bosworth, in 2019. Outside of these two areas though, the Conservatives are dominant and so should be considered heavily favourites to hang onto majority control here.
2017 Result:Con 58 Lab 6 Ind 5 LDem 1. Seats needed for a majority: 36.
Districts: Boston (Con maj) East Lindsey (Con maj) Lincoln (Lab maj) North Kesteven (Con min) South Holland (Con maj) South Kesteven (Con maj) West Lindsey (Con maj)
Conservatives made big gains here in 2017, advancing from 36 to 58 seats, mainly at the expense of UKIP, which captured 16 seats here in 2013, and independents who had previously won 10 seats (8 of which were affiliated with the “Lincolnshire Independent” party). This is likely to be an easy Conservative hold.
2017 Result:Con 55 Lab 17 LDem 11 Ind 1. Seats needed for a majority: 43.
Districts: Breckland (Con maj) Broadland (Con maj) Great Yarmouth (Con maj) King’s Lynn and West Norfolk (Con maj) North Norfolk (LDem maj) Norwich (Lab maj) South Norfolk (Con maj)
2019 was a bit of a mixed bag for Norfolk Liberal Democrats, in May 2019, we gained control of North Norfolk council, which switched from a 33-15 Conservative majority to a 30-10 Lib Dem majority and made progress in other areas. The general election in the same year however was not so kind to the party, with us losing the seat of North Norfolk, a 3,500-vote majority turning into a deficit of more than 14,000. Given the Conservatives dominance this is expected to be an easy Conservative hold.
2017 Result:Con 31 Lab 23 Ind 11 LDem 1. Seats needed for a majority: 34.
Districts: Ashfield (Ind maj) Bassetlaw (Lab maj) Broxtowe (Lab-LDem-Ind coalition) Gedling (Lab maj) Mansfield (Ind maj) Newark and Sherwood (Con maj) Rushcliffe (Con maj)
Ashfield Independents went from nowhere to take 30 of the 35 seats on offer
After the 2017 election, the Conservatives formed a minority administration – the independents elected here are split between 5 Ashfield independents (who also run Ashfield District Council), 4 who represent the Mansfield Independent Forum (who also run Mansfield District Council) and two other independents. It remains to be seen if Conservatives are able to capture an overall majority or if both major parties will have to negotiate with independents to decide who will run the county for the next four years.
2017 Result:Con 51 Lab 10 Ind 1. Seats needed for a majority: 32.
Districts: Cannock Chase (Lab min) East Staffordshire (Con maj) Lichfield (Con maj) Newcastle-under-Lyme (Con min) South Staffordshire (Con maj) Stafford (Con maj) Staffordshire Moorlands (Con-Ind coalition) Tamworth (Con maj)
A very safe Conservative county – in 2017 Lib Dems finished fourth in terms of votes, behind UKIP and were very nearly beaten into fifth by the Greens, expected to be an easy Conservative hold.
2017 Result:Con 52 Lab 11 LDem 5 Grn 3 Ind 3. Seats needed for a majority: 38.
Districts: Babergh (Con-Ind-LDem coalition) Ipswich (Lab maj) Mid Suffolk (Con-Ind coalition) West Suffolk (Con maj) East Suffolk (Con maj)
Conservatives made big gains here in 2017, picking up seats predominantly from UKIP (reduced from 10 councillors to none) but also from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Outside of Ipswich, all of the district/borough councils that make up the lower tier of local government here are run by Conservatives, this includes the newly formed West Suffolk and East Suffolk District Councils, formed in 2019 by mergers of Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury, and Suffolk Coastal and Waveney, respectively. Conservatives are heavily favoured to maintain overall majority control here.
2017 Result:Con 61 LDem 9 Ind 9 Lab 1 Grn 1. Seats needed for a majority: 41.
Districts: Elmbridge (Ind-LDem coalition) Epsom and Ewell (Ind maj) Guildford (LDem-Ind coalition) Mole Valley (LDem maj) Reigate and Banstead (Con maj) Runnymede (Con maj) Spelthorne (Con min) Surrey Heath (Con maj) Tandridge (Con maj) Waverley (Ind-LDem-Grn-Lab coalition) Woking (Con min)
Pockets of Liberal Democrat strength exist across the County, including some Liberal Democrat run local councils and two very near misses at the 2019 general election: Guildford (where the Conservative majority was cut from 17,000 to 3,300) and Esher and Walton (where the Conservative majority was slashed from 23,300 to 2,700). Despite this, the Conservative majority going into these elections is so large that it seems improbably opposition parties would get the 20 gains needed to wrestle the council to no overall control.
2017 Result:Con 36 Lab 10 LDem 7 Grn 2 Ind 2. Seats needed for a majority: 29.
Districts: North Warwickshire (Con maj) Nuneaton and Bedworth (Lab min) Rugby (Con maj) Stratford-on-Avon (Con maj) Warwick (Con maj)
Between 2013 and 2017, no one party had an overall majority here, but the Conservatives were able to continue to govern in a minority, before taking majority control in 2017 – with the Liberal Democrats in third place here, the only route to power would likely be as a junior party in a coalition, however if recent history is replicated, even if Conservatives were to lose control, it may simply mean a Conservative minority administration.
2017 Result:Con 56 LDem 9 Lab 5. Seats needed for a majority: 36.
Districts: Adur (Con maj) Arun (LDem min) Chichester (Con maj) Crawley (Lab maj) Horsham (Con maj) Mid Sussex (Con maj) Worthing (Con maj)
With Conservatives defending a majority of twenty, it seems unlikely that this County Council will change hands in these elections.
2017 Result:Con 40 Lab 10 LDem 3 Grn 2 Ind 2. Seats needed for a majority: 29.
Districts: Bromsgrove (Con maj) Malvern Hills (Ind-LDem-Grn coalition) Redditch (Con maj) Worcester (Con-Lab coalition) Wychavon (Con majority) Wyre Forest (Ind-Grn coalition)
With only three Liberal Democrats at a county level, it seems likely that this county will remain in Conservative hands.