Conservatives bid to bolster Red Wall success in Yorkshire local elections, while Labour pin hopes on mayoral race
When voters head to the ballot boxes next month - or, due to the pandemic, pop their vote in the postbox - they will be voting in some of the biggest elections in modern history.
Coronavirus put paid to local elections taking place last year, meaning this year is a bumper crop where voters will be choosing a mixture of councillors, local mayors, regional mayors and police commissioners, as voters in Scotland and Wales choosing new parliaments.
And in Yorkshire, each party has a different goal.
Tory peer and independent elections expert Robert Hayward told The Yorkshire Post that elections in 2017 had been a precursor for the fall of the Red Wall seen in the 2019 General Election.
And he said this time around, the Tories would be looking to build on those gains.
“The local elections in 2017 gave us the first indications of what might happen and therefore it's reasonable for [the Conservatives] to remind people that actually they've got some stiff defences on their hands, but equally the Labour Party is going through the same process,” Lord Hayward said.
Aside from a handful of council by-elections in recent months in Scotland and Wales, no polls have been held anywhere in the UK since March 2020 – a gap unprecedented in modern history.
And that, combined with the impact of coronavirus, made the polls very difficult to call.
Lord Hayward said: “It's made electioneering very difficult. It's even made preparation for elections difficult.”
And he added: “The broader issue is that for all the political parties, because there have been no elections, nothing in England for over a year, people really don't know for certain where their support is.”
Like all parties, Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling said the Tories had very little indication of how voting would go due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, but admitted many seats were theirs to lose.
“A lot of these seats are ones which we gained in 2017, where we gained 550 seats in those local elections, we have got a very big job to do to defend those because at that time we were 18 points ahead in the polls,” she told The Yorkshire Post after a visit to the region last week.
“Whilst we’re currently ahead in the polls we’re not by any kind of stretch close to that and over the last couple of weeks when I’ve been visiting councillors who are defending in some instances a majority of one, and it only takes a handful of votes to go in the other direction.”
Ms Milling spent time last week with new MPs Miriam Cates in Penistone and Stocksbridge, Alexander Stafford in Rother Valley, and Nick Fletcher in Don Valley, lending credence to the approach that the party wishes to keep momentum in places it won in 2019.
Analysis from Lord Hayward showed that in 2017 the Tories only fielded 28 candidates out of a maximum of 55 in Doncaster, this time, they had 54.
In Rotherham it was 23 out of 63 in 2017, but this year they are putting up 42 candidates out of a total of 59 available wards due to new seats being created and a reduction in councillors.
While in Sheffield 2017 saw just 53 candidates out of a maximum of 84, this year its a full slate of 29 out of 29 as a third of the council seats are up for election.
Lord Hayward said: “It's an indication of the shift of attention for the Conservative Party, and because the elections in Rotherham and Doncaster, and in Sheffield and Leeds, broadly relate to 2016 - which wasn't as good a year for the Tories as 2017 was - then the Labour Party will be more on the defensive in those sorts of areas. I wouldn't expect massive Conservative gains, but that's clearly the Tory party will be disappointed if they don't make some gains.”
But Ms Milling said: “This is a very big defensive election for us.”
Asked about Rotherham, Doncaster, and Sheffield, she said there had been successes for the Conservatives nationally “but actually what you find is that they do not have a very high local government presence”.
“In fact in some cases we’ve got no councillors whatsoever so this is their first opportunity to really get local councillors to build on the great work that they’re doing as local MPs,” she said.
Lord Hayward said: “Boris Johnson has talked about levelling up. Clearly part of that levelling up is providing finance and attention to whether it be in Yorkshire or the Northeast or certain parts of the West and East Midlands. But if you're saying you're going to do that, the Conservative Party has an obligation to say what we actually want to represent you all.
“So whereas previously in places like Rotherham and Doncaster and just over the border in Mansfield and Ashfield, the Conservatives have actually had a lot of empty spaces when it's come to candidacies, they've clearly put a big effort in ensuring that the first stage of the election is they've got the candidates so that the new MPs for bits of Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and the like, can say ‘we're here, we're fighting at ground level, now elect us.”
However Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: “It is going to be a tough set of elections for us in Yorkshire and across the North where the Tories made huge gains in 2019. We're coming from a base of if you take our 2019 results, we'd lose 300 seats in May, so I'm realistic about where we started.
“But I'm optimistic about the leadership Keir and myself have shown over the past 12 months and not just our leadership, but I think it's really important to recognise the leadership that our local councillors and local representatives and our mayoral candidates and our Police and Crime Commissioners have worked. They've been stepping in whether that's on free school meals, whether that's the mayor in Greater Manchester showing what a Labour mayor can do by standing up against the Government.
“So I think we've shown actually, when Labour’s in power, we make a real difference.
“Quite frankly, the Tories had a great talk in Yorkshire about levelling up, but the reality is that the words haven't matched the actions. And if I was Amanda Milling and the Tories, I'd be nervous about that as well, because they can't blame everything on the pandemic.”
Lord Hayward said: “I think people have got caught by the rise of the Conservatives in the opinion polls. It is completely abnormal that any government is leading by probably six to eight per cent when they’ve been in government for a decade, and that is the position and of course, the rise of the Conservatives has been in recent weeks, so it's quite striking. But West Yorkshire if you put it together, I'm looking at Bradford and Leeds and Kirklees and Calderdale and Wakefield, it is essentially Labour territory.”
And he added Labour “probably are more defensive in Yorkshire than elsewhere because they haven't got anything in 2017 to attack, and because they don't know what to defend, and they don't know where the Lib Dems are going to be stronger or not”.
One area where there is likely to be a Labour versus Lib Dem scrap is Hull, where the former is putting in significant resources to unseat the city’s only Conservative councillors in Bricknell ward.
Jack Haines, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Boothferry ward in Hull, said this meant the party was leaving open opportunities for his party to make gains.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey signalled his party was particularly interested in Hull and Sheffield in an interview with The Yorkshire Post last month.
And Coun Haines said the party was looking to “take some scalps” of senior members of the Labour administration, including deputy leader of the council Daren Hale in St Andrews and Docklands ward.
He said there was also a focus on North Carr ward, where all three Labour councillors are portfolio holders and on portfolio holder David Craker in Sutton ward.
“In a usual election year we’d be on for a good result if we made the gains, but if we do make these particular gains we’d be making some real scalps of the Labour administration,” he said.
“The key battleground for us is St Andrews and Docklands, there was a byelection there in 2019 and we put up a candidate who came in within just 32 votes, and that went from being the safest Labour ward on a technicality in the city to the second most marginal ward in the city, and we’ve carried on campaigning there.”
Amid the uncertainty, one race that seems a certain win for Labour is the West Yorkshire mayoralty, where Tracy Brabin has long been the bookies’ favourite, and Lord Hayward said he would be “astonished” if she did not become mayor.
But he said that in itself left room for another byelection, where he predicted the Conservatives would fight very hard.
Ms Rayner said: “We've got our mayoral candidate in Tracy Brabin, Yorkshire born and bred. So if I was the candidate against Tracy I'd be incredibly nervous because regardless of what political stripes Tracy has, she's Yorkshire and she cares about her community and she's down to earth.
“So she's going to be a tremendous voice for the people if she wins the mayoral, and I think she will because anyone's lucky to have Tracy.”
Turning to Labour councils in Yorkshire, Ms Rayner pointed to Bradford pioneering local contact tracing, and Sheffield giving out laptops to children for home learning.
“The point is, is that they didn't have to be told or embarrassed by a Premiership footballer to do it, because they were in the community and they got it and they were doing it.
“The problem that a lot of our Labour councils have faced, and a lot of Tory councils have said that as well and you can find on the record, is over 10 years of Conservative austerity.”
She added: “It's about making sure that we first of all, send a huge message to the Conservatives in power in London, and that's do not underestimate or take advantage of the people of Yorkshire. You haven't levelled up, you've levelled us all down, and we're not stupid, we see that.”
Declarations for counts in Yorkshire will be spread out across the days following May 6 due to Covid-sad measures for counting.