Wakefield by-election bigger than the locals for Labour but would be just a start - Greg Cook and Declan McHugh

Local elections always pose a critical mid-term test for Prime Ministers; let alone for a premier such as Boris Johnson, beset as he is by a seemingly never-ending row over Downing Street parties.

But as voters across large swathes of the country head to the polling booths on May 5, the eyes of political junkies will be turned towards the key Red Wall areas of Yorkshire, for a sense of how likely Labour are to mount a serious challenge for Government at the next national elections.

While Boris Johnson is facing calls to quit from a number of his own backbenchers, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is also under pressure from within his own party. He needs to show that he has got what it takes to win back voters who have abandoned the party and especially those in former Labour strongholds who transferred their votes in 2019 .

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Of course local elections are principally about local politics. In Yorkshire only one or two councils are likely to change hands. Labour’s main prize would be regaining its majority in Kirklees where it needs to pick up two additional seats. The result is on a knife-edge with three possible gains in the Colne Valley and in West Huddersfield but also a possible loss in Denby Dale.

Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA.

Against that, a repeat of last year’s results in Hull would mean Labour losing its majority to the Liberal Democrats, although they may be saved by winning the only remaining Tory seat on the council, in the Bricknell ward.

The Lib Dems will also hope to entrench their position and perhaps even become the largest party in Sheffield, where Labour lost its majority last year, while the Tories will be hoping to add to their success in Stocksbridge where they picked up their first seat on the city council following Miriam Cates’ victory in the General Election.

While there are no council elections in neighbouring Doncaster or Rotherham, both, along with Sheffield and Barnsley, will be taking part in the election to replace Dan Jarvis as Mayor of South Yorkshire.

In North Yorkshire, elections to the new unitary authority will almost certainly produce a Conservative majority and the other parties will be concentrating on areas where they hope to regain parliamentary constituencies at the next General Election; in Harrogate and Knaresborough for the Liberal Democrats and Scarborough and Whitby for Labour.

Stocksbridge is just one example of how voting patterns are being turned on their heads. In Halifax last year Labour gained the seat of the last remaining Tory councillor in the Skircoat ward, a wealthy middle class area that was once a Conservative stronghold, but lost to the Tories in Illingworth and Mixenden, an area dominated by social housing which used to be firmly Labour. This was just the kind of electoral upheaval which underpinned the 2019 election result.

When Labour was last in government there was just one Conservative seat in the whole of South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. Now there are 12. For Labour to win again it needs to regain almost all of them and these local elections will provide vital evidence of what progress they are making. But perhaps the most crucial test will come after the local elections, in Wakefield, where the resignation of Imran Ahmad Khan MP, who triumphed for the Tories at the last general election, has left Labour facing a “must-win” by-election in one of those crucial constituencies.

The local elections will provide important clues about which way the by-election will go. In Wakefield District the Conservatives had their best ever year in 2021, taking almost two of every five votes cast and gaining six seats from Labour.

They are unlikely to repeat that performance this year but will want to win more seats in Wakefield itself, Outwood, Pontefract and the former coalfield communities. Labour requires a 3.8 per cent swing from the Conservatives to win back Wakefield parliamentary constituency. Such a swing, if repeated nationally, would deprive the Tories of a majority in the House of Commons. But merely to become the largest party in parliament, Labour would need a swing of about eight per cent nationally.

So Wakefield is really just in the foothills of the electoral mountain which Keir Starmer needs to climb, and a failure to win the by-election at a time when the Government is at its lowest ebb in the polls will be taken by many to mean that their prospects of reaching the summit are remote. That is why this part of the country will be the centre of political attention over the next few weeks.

Mr Cook was Labour’s head of polling for 20 years and Mr McHugh is a former Labour special adviser. They are now consultants at Helm Partners, the strategy and communications agency.