Net-Zero Transition News

Madano Election Hub - Local elections 2023: our three big takeaways

By Ben Gascoyne, Senior Account Director, Net Zero Transition
By Ben Gascoyne, Senior Account Director, Net-Zero Transition

Earlier in May, voters across England went to the polls for what may well be the last time before the next general election.

Across the country, Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives saw difficult election results, losing over 1,000 councillors and in the process, its control over many local authorities.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens made gains at their expense. Labour gained control of local authorities like Stoke-on-Trent that deserted the party post-Brexit, between 2016 and 2019, and won areas like Swindon that would pave the way for a majority at a general election.

The Liberal Democrats – who typically outperform national polling in local elections and by-elections – made breakthroughs in areas the party has been vocal about targeting in a general election, like Surrey and Hampshire.

Ahead of the local elections, Sunak’s team had tried to set low expectations, predicting up to 1,000 seats lost, so exceeding those numbers will have hurt.

With the clock ticking now running down on a general election in 2024, the results will play an important role in the political mood going into the summer, and shaping each main party’s priorities for the next year.

Getting under the skin of the high level numbers, we review three big takeaways on what the results mean for politics, the government’s priorities, and net zero.

1. Little room for error

While Labour and the Liberal Democrats have vocally celebrated their gains, and pointed to their big wins in key areas, there’s relatively margin for error for any of the main three parties in England.

As the dust settles on the local elections, on current performance, pollsters have pointed out that Labour’s performance would fall somewhere between winning a storming majority and falling just short, which would result in a hung parliament and a potential coalition government. Labour will now seek to deliver on optimism that it has turned a corner in the ‘Red Wall’, while persuading middle England that now is the time for change.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats showed electoral progress in target areas, but still need to significantly improve on the ‘efficiency’ of how their national share of the vote translates to the number of constituencies won in a general election. In 2019, the party took over 11% of the vote compared to 2017’s 7.4%, but actually lost a parliamentary seat in the process. At the time, the critique of Jo Swinson’s leadership hadn’t focused on where its efforts would really count. In 2024, it aims to take seats in generally more affluent areas like the Home Counties.

With this ‘pincer movement’ in mind, Sunak’s Conservatives cannot afford any further decline in the polls.

2. A challenge to the Government’s priorities

This creates pressure on the Prime Minister’s priorities for the next year. While there is little prospect of a serious challenge to his leadership of the party, Sunak is now facing growing calls from his backbenchers – and internal critics – to change direction.

Sunak and Hunt’s hopes were that by satisfying international markets and calming the UK’s businesses and consumers, they would see the benefits in the form of reduced inflation and improved investment before the next election. This would also create headroom to respond to a challenging global environment, with Sunak and Hunt thought to be exploring further responses to the United States’ competitive approach to net zero and tech investment through the Inflation Reduction Act.

Answering internal calls to prioritise immediate tax cuts instead would make this significantly harder. Already, just a week on, the calls already growing louder.

Additionally, losing control of some areas of the country will make the simple optics of levelling up harder to manage, which will subtly change the Government’s approach to events, visits and announcements.

3. Net zero is high on the agenda

Finally, the impact of the local election results will be felt in net zero policy. One of the areas that Sunak and his team have been criticised by Conservative backbenchers and commentators for is their backing for net zero.

Critics feel that the PM has failed to connect his support for net zero with the priorities of everyday voters, in tackling the cost-of-living crisis and creating growth. The likelihood is that Sunak will be keen to make bold and visible announcements on projects, funds and breakthroughs that create new jobs and reduce energy prices this autumn.

In contrast, Keir Starmer immediately sat down for a roundtable at the Royal Academy today to highlight his technology and green credentials, with a focus on Labour’s 2030 net zero energy system promise to lower bills during the campaign.

Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats claim to have won as a result of voter frustration at the Government’s inability to tackle a different sustainability challenge, on sewage and waterways.

What's next for summer and autumn?

For all parties, we saw once again that environmental issues will be critical to any winning strategy in 2024 – polling by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found a majority of voters wanted more action on climate change, and backing for on-shore renewables like wind and solar.

The autumn conferences are going to be critical. The Conservatives are running out of time to turnaround their fortunes. The Labour Party needs to close the deal.

Alongside this, the Chancellor’s ability to make a bold case for high growth technology and green industries in the Autumn Statement will significantly shape who ‘owns’ net zero.