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Local Elections 2022: Will protest voting swamp local issues?

In light of public discontent towards the government, protest voting and low turnout look set to define the local elections

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On 5 May, more than 4,350 seats will be contested on over 140 councils in the 2022 UK local elections. These elections offer voters the chance to elect councillors to represent their ward or neighbourhood on the local council.

However, while these elections are pivotal for the future of local governance, they also offer an insight into the broader political landscape facing the major political parties. At a time when Britain is navigating itself out of a global pandemic and the current government is facing a slew of scandals, it’s uncertain whether these elections will turn into a national opinion poll rather than a vote on local issues.

Most notably, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing intense calls to quit after he, alongside his wife Carrie and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, were fined by the police for breaching lockdown rules in June 2020. The Metropolitan Police are investigating as many as twelve lockdown-breaking gatherings held between 2020 and 2021 with ‘partygate’ having dominated the headlines for many months.

Another big story of the year is the cost of living crisis which the government has been accused of failing to get a grip of. Huge increases in food, energy and fuel prices have pushed many households into hardship while inflation was running at 6.2 percent in the year to March. The Conservatives have faced bad press over their £200 loan scheme to tackle rising energy costs, which some have branded insufficient considering the energy price cap rose by £693 in April according to Ofgem. This coincided with a 1.25 percent hike in National Insurance contributions, albeit with the Chancellor amending the threshold meaning lower earners pay less.

The upcoming elections will be largely seen as a sign of what voters have made of these issues, with political analysts forecasting a wave of ‘protest voting’ against Conservative candidates. YouGov polling in January found that 72 percent of the British public held an unfavourable view of Johnson, a record low for his tenure making him even more unpopular than Theresa May during her premiership.

Indeed local elections are often characterised by the national political matters, with the Conservatives making net losses of 1,269 seats in 2019 following their struggle to deliver Brexit. In cities such as York the Tories lost 12 of their 14 seats previously won in 2019, while the Lib Dems made gains to become the largest party. While York is not voting this year, if 2019 is any example of how disgruntled voters act in local elections the Conservatives could see even greater losses in May.

Leading pollsters Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have even predicted that the Tories will attempt to write off losses of between 100 to 150 seats as 'mid-term blues', with panic only setting in if the party begins reaching
losses of 350 or more.

‘Mid-term blues’ have already been seen in several shock by-election results last year when the Conservatives lost safe seats such as North Shropshire as well as Chesham and Amersham to the Lib Dems. While their surprise win in Hartlepool nearly a year ago offered some hope, similar optimism appears sparse in the current
climate.

Furthermore, local elections are often marred with incredibly low turnout. A figure of just 35 percent was achieved at the 2018 local elections, with councils in Hartlepool and Kingston upon Hull reaching a mere 24 and 25 percent respectively.

Whether voters are sceptical about the role of councillors or they’re merely apathetic to the decisions taken by their local authorities is unclear. Yet the last time many vacant seats in England were contested was in 2018, before the pandemic and when Brexit dominated the news. It is therefore possible more voters may participate next month even if they vote in protest, given the national backdrop of scandals and economic hardship.

A key factor could be if the full report into ‘partygate’ compiled by the senior civil servant Sue Gray is released by then, with early reports suggesting it to be damning. But many argue the damage to the Conservatives is irreversible under its current leadership, with Labour struggling to make ground also.

Boris Johnson is already in a precarious position after becoming the first sitting Prime Minister to break the law and if the local elections are a failure for the party, Tory MPs may well wish to replace him. With such pervasive
dissatisfaction, protest voting and poor turnout look set to define the 2022 local elections if previous performances offer any direction.

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