A first glimpse of post-Brexit politics? England’s May 2021 elections

Published: 19 April 2021
Author: Jack Sheldon

Jack Sheldon looks ahead to the mayoral and local elections in England which will be held on 6th May. He suggests that they could provide a first glimpse of the shape England’s post-Brexit politics might take, but that the election which seems likely have the most lasting impact on the course of English politics (and that of the wider UK) will be that in Scotland.

While Scottish and Welsh attention will be fixed firmly on the elections to the devolved parliaments, voters across England will also be going to the polls on 6th May, for a range of regional and local elections. These will be the first electoral events in England since the general election in December 2019 – a contest dominated by the issue of Brexit, and won by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives on a platform to ‘get Brexit done’. Since then the UK has duly left the EU, a UK-EU future relationship agreement has been concluded, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have elected new leaders, and the coronavirus pandemic has impacted on almost every part of our daily lives. 

These, then, are the first English elections to take place in what feels like a much-changed political world. Yet, from the polling evidence currently available to us, it would appear that none of what has happened over the past 18 months has had too dramatic an impact on public opinion. The gap in support between the Conservatives and the Labour opposition narrowed for a time following Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn, but the most recent polls suggest the Conservatives have re-established a comfortable lead among English voters. The Johnson administration has been able to take credit for England’s comparatively fast coronavirus vaccine rollout, in comparison especially to the remaining EU member states, and restrictions on outdoor socialising have recently having been eased. So there are reasons to believe that the timing of this round of elections might prove favourable for the governing party.

The highest-profile contests are the mayoral elections in London and seven predominantly-urban ‘combined authority’ areas. With the exceptions of London, which has had an elected mayor since 2000, and West Yorkshire, a brand new mayoralty, these offices are being contested for the second time. Since the previous round of ‘metro mayor’ elections in 2017 several of the inaugural office-holders have established themselves as prominent public advocates for their city-regions, even while their formal powers remain relatively limited. The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, was even hailed by some as ‘King of the North’ during a high-profile dispute with the Johnson government last year, over the application of Covid restrictions to that region and the availability of associated financial support.

The two mayoral races likely to attract most media interest in the run-up to 6th May are those in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley. Four years ago these were both won narrowly – and somewhat surprisingly – by the Conservative candidates, respectively Andy Street and Ben Houchen. The Conservatives went on to make significant parliamentary gains in these parts of England in 2019. It’s therefore inevitable that the results will be interpreted as representing a first test for the Johnson government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, designed to shore up Tory support in the parts of England they did well in during the Brexit years, and of Labour’s ability to regain lost ground in the totemic ‘red wall’ seats under their new leader Keir Starmer.

A disappointing feature of the 2017 ‘metro mayor’ elections was that all were won by male candidates. The first South Yorkshire and North of Tyne mayors, not up for re-election this year after being elected in 2018 and 2019, are also men. The contest most likely to break this pattern this May is that for the new mayor of West Yorkshire, whose territorial constituency will cover Leeds, Bradford and surrounding areas. Labour candidate Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley and Spen, starts as favourite. 

Although Boris Johnson himself was a two-term Mayor of London, elected for the second time only nine years ago, there are few signs that the Conservatives will be successful in the capital this time round. Contrary to the trends in many other parts of England, the political pendulum has shifted decisively towards Labour over recent years in London, a city where most voters supported EU membership in 2016. And the current government’s focus on ‘levelling up’ other parts of England offers little for residents of its largest population-centre. Recent polling indicates the Labour incumbent, Sadiq Khan, could even win with an overall majority of first preference votes, which would be an unprecedented outcome. The Conservative challenger, Shaun Bailey, has struggled to make much of an impact – attracting media attention mainly in relation to a number of controversies.

Over 4,500 council seats are also being contested across England, a larger number than usual following the postponement due to coronavirus of elections originally due to be held in 2020. Overall tallies of party gains and losses will, as always following local election day, be cited as evidence of prevailing political trends. It may, though, be more instructive to take a more granular focus. With the formal Brexit process concluded, it will be particularly interesting to see whether the divergence in political trends between different types of place that has been accelerating in England since 2016 continues.

The headlines on local election day in England have often been taken by the smaller parties in the past. But this time round their prospects don’t look too great, at least if national polling is anything to go by. The Liberal Democrats have struggled to define a role for themselves now that the UK has left the EU, and will be hoping that their traditional strong-suit of local politics can provide Sir Ed Davey’s leadership with some much-needed momentum. There are few signs that either UKIP or Reform UK, the successor to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, are currently attracting much public support. The one smaller party that has improved its polling position recently is the Greens, perhaps benefiting from left-wing disaffection with Keir Starmer’s more moderate leadership of Labour, following the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure. It will be interesting to see if this uptick in Green support is converted into council seat gains, or an improvement on its two seats on the London Assembly.

Taken together, the range of elections in England on May 8th can be expected to be provide a first glimpse of the shape England’s politics might take now that Brexit has taken place. But, rather unusually, the election which seems likely have the most lasting impact on the course of English politics (and that of the wider UK) will be that in Scotland. With Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government seeking to secure a mandate to demand a second independence referendum, it may well be the Holyrood results that Johnson and Starmer are monitoring most anxiously when the ballot boxes are opened, and the outcome of that election rather than any of the English contests that dominates political and media discussion in the following weeks and months.