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LONDON — Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have lost control of key councils in London and the south of England as the Labour Party claimed the local elections represented a “turning point.”
The local polls will be seen as a litmus test of Johnson’s leadership midway through the parliamentary term as he grapples with a cost of living crisis and the partygate scandal.
Labour took control of Wandsworth and Westminster — traditional Conservative strongholds in the capital — while the Liberal Democrats took control of Hull in the north-west of England, and picked up a clutch of seats in the south-west.
Labour’s leader Keir Starmer called the picture so far “astonishing” and, alluding to the party’s fortunes under his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, added: “We’ve changed Labour and now we’re seeing the results of that.”
With dozens of local authorities yet to declare, Labour’s national campaign coordinator Shabana Mahmood hailed “a turning point” which showed “voters have put their trust in the change Keir Starmer’s Labour represents.”
However, it was not all rosy for the opposition as they lost vote share compared with 2018 in the North and Midlands, where they will need to make big gains at the next general election if they are to win power at a national level.
Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden told Sky News “we’ve had some difficult results” but added “given we’re mid-term it doesn’t show Labour have the momentum” to win a general election.
“There have been lots of difficult headlines for the past few months,” he admitted.
Voters also went to the polls in a pivotal Northern Ireland Assembly election and Scottish local elections, but these results will not be known until later on Friday.
Tough night for Tories
Local Conservative leaders attributed their losses both to the cost of living crisis and to the stewardship of Johnson, who has faced persistent questions over his integrity as a result of the long-running partygate scandal.
Ravi Govindia, leader of the Tories in Wandsworth, said “inevitably other events have clouded the judgment of people in Wandsworth” and admitted people raised “the issue of Boris Johnson” during the campaign.
Royston Smith, a Conservative MP in Southampton where the party also lost control of the local council to Labour, urged the prime minister and the chancellor to do more to help people deal with pressure on household budgets created by rising inflation and energy bills.
Conservatives were more positive about their fortunes in the North East and the Midlands, with a party official pointing out Labour had “gone backwards” in places such as Sunderland, Hartlepool, Nuneaton and Sandwell.
Robert Jenrick, a former Cabinet minister, said the results did not suggest “people are flocking to Keir Starmer’s banner” or that Labour is on course to win the next general election.
But Labour also won control of Barnet Council in north London, where the party previously lost ground because of widespread anti-Semitism accusations, while the Tories lost several seats in Hillingdon, which is home to the prime minister’s constituency.
In the leafy London suburb of Richmond, the Tories look likely to be left with just a single councillor after taking a serious drubbing from the Liberal Democrats.
Forty percent of the seats being contested in England were in the capital, as every single ward in London was up for election. The patchwork of seats up for grabs in the rest of England makes those results more difficult to interpret.
Labour has suffered setbacks in parts of England such as Oldham, where the council leader lost her seat to the Tories, and a lack of progress in others such as Hartlepool.
The party appears to have fallen short of the sea change it needs ahead of the next election. John Curtice said: “There is so far very little evidence of the Labour Party making particularly significant advances in the so-called Red Wall i.e. pro-Leave parts of the country in the Midlands and the north.”
Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper claimed her party was making “progress all over the country,” citing good results in Colchester in Essex, south-west London and Gosport in Hampshire, as well as taking control of Hull.
The Green Party made inroads, gaining seats in South Tyneside in the North East and the Wirral in the North West.
The city of Bristol voted to scrap its directly elected mayor, a position introduced ten years ago.
Turnout was on average down 2.5 percent on last year’s local elections, but John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said there was no evidence this had disproportionately hurt the Tories.
Slow burner in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, where all 90 seats in its devolved legislature are up for grabs, ballot counting has just begun with first winners to be declared by the afternoon. But full results are unlikely to be confirmed until Saturday.
That’s because the Northern Ireland Assembly — the foundation for the U.K. region’s misfiring cross-community government — is elected in a Single Transferrable Vote system. Voters rated candidates in order of preference to determine five winners in each of 18 constituencies. Those calculations will require at least several painstaking rounds of ballot counting; this also makes the final winner in each district almost impossible to predict.
Electoral officials suggest turnout across Northern Ireland has reached about 60 percent, which would be lower than the 65 percent reached at the last assembly vote five years ago.
But turnout appears unusually low in some Irish nationalist areas, particularly in the predominantly Catholic west where Sinn Féin is dominant, while turnout looks unusually high in some Protestant districts where the DUP is being challenged by an even more hard-line party called Traditional Unionist Voice. One straw poll outside an east Belfast polling station showed the TUV attracting a third of first-preference votes that normally would go to the DUP.
The Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party is gunning to become the largest for the first time, overtaking its British unionist opponents in the Democratic Unionists, the only major local party to back Brexit. In contrast to other parties, the Democratic Unionists tied their campaign to demands for an end to the post-Brexit trade protocol that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. The DUP warns it won’t re-enter a coalition with Sinn Féin unless the U.K. government dumps its protocol treaty with the EU.
Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson doubled down on that threat Friday morning, demanding an end to EU-required customs and sanitary checks on British goods arriving in Northern Irish ports.
“Words alone will not be sufficient. We need action to deal with the profound difficulties caused by the protocol,” Donaldson said. “I will not enter an Executive until that action is taken.”
This article has been updated.