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Voters Swing to Labour in English Local Elections: Key Takeaways

While the votes in local elections in England and Wales were still being counted on Friday, a picture has begun to emerge of significant losses for the governing Conservative Party.

The voting on Thursday to elect councilors, mayors and police commissioners in local elections, seen as a last test of public opinion before a general election expected later this year, portends a difficult road ahead for the party.

Here are four takeaways.

Leading up to the local elections, the question was not whether the Conservatives would suffer, but just how bad the blow might be. The party has trailed Labour, the main opposition party, in opinion polls for some time, after a series of scandals, the implosion of Boris Johnson’s administration and the embarrassment of the 45-day prime ministership of Liz Truss, leading many Britons to look elsewhere for leadership.

By midday on Friday, the early results suggested that the party might have fared even more poorly than its leaders had feared. When all is said and done, some analysts think the Conservatives could lose as many as 500 council seats, a signal of serious trouble ahead for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s beleaguered Conservative Party.

Around one-third of England’s council seats were contested, along with 11 mayoral seats in major English metro areas. While these elections were about local leadership, the results of Thursday’s vote serve as an important barometer of overall public opinion, and ultimately a test of whether the Conservative Party can retain power in a general election expected this fall.

Labour won control of a number of key councils, including Hartlepool, Thurrock, Rushmoor, and Redditch, all of which were seen as battleground races that could gauge broader public sentiment.

However, the Conservatives had some notable wins to cling to, including the Tees Valley mayoral race, where Ben Houchen, the incumbent, received the majority of the vote, albeit with a much smaller percentage than in his last election.

The election made clear that the opposition Labour Party was succeeding in winning back its longtime supporters in the working-class areas of northern England — often called the “red wall” for their entrenched support for Labour, whose party color is red — who had defected over Brexit and immigration.

After Labour won control of the council in Hartlepool, a party representative said, “Making gains here shows that the party is on track to win a general election and is firmly back in the service of working people.”

In Blackpool South, a deprived seaside district, the Labour Party easily took a parliamentary by-election held Thursday after a Conservative lawmaker stepped down. The seat had long been held by Labour, but it was won by the Conservatives in 2019.

Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, said the win was a message sent directly by the public to Mr. Sunak “to say we’re fed up with your decline, your chaos, your division, and we want change.”

But Labour also faced some pushback, possibly as an effect of its staunch support for Israel in the war in Gaza and a delay in calling for a cease-fire, that could dampen the party’s gains in some northern places, a senior Labour figure, Pat McFadden, acknowledged to Sky News. Notably, the party lost control of the Oldham Council, where a large Muslim population seemed to shift its votes to independent candidates, he added.

Reform UK, a right-wing party founded by the Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, ran relatively few candidates in the elections. But their performance in some key races suggested that they could have a major effect on the general election.

In the Blackpool South election, which was overwhelmingly won by the Labour candidate, Chris Webb, Reform UK received nearly as many votes as the Conservatives, with a margin of just 117 votes between the two (3,218 to 3,101.)

The results seemingly confirmed opinion polls that put the party third behind Labour and the Tories, underscoring the threat it could pose to the Conservatives in the upcoming general election.

Thursday’s vote was the first test of new voting regulations stemming from the Elections Act of 2022, and election monitors said the process went smoothly, with some notable exceptions.

The vote marked the first time in England that every voter needed to show photo identification, and Mr. Johnson, the former prime minister, was reportedly turned away from his polling place after arriving without it, according to Sky News. He later returned with the necessary identification and voted.

Some veterans complained that they were unable to use veteran’s identification cards to vote, as they were not an approved form of photo identification. Johnny Mercer, the minister of veterans’ affairs, said in a post on the social media platform X that he was sorry it had become an issue. He vowed that the cards would be accepted in the next election.

But Britain’s Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees the election, said in a statement that “most voters who wanted to vote were able to do so,” and that it would “identify any potential obstacles to participation.”

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