As Britain goes to the polls for the first (but not last) time this year, our public affairs team considers the results so far and what they will mean for the general election, and the energy and infrastructure sectors.

 

Overview and analysis

This year’s local elections were defined by widespread defeats in councils across the UK for the Conservatives. The results have been described by the BBC’s election expert Sir John Curtice as ‘one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performances in local government elections for the last 40 years’, bearing out their position in the opinion polls over the last 18 months. The Conservatives have so far lost over half their seats and are set to lose over 500 councillors – a worst-case scenario.

More significantly for the forthcoming general election, as well as the loss of hundreds of council seats, the party also suffered a heavy defeat to Labour in the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election, held to elect a new MP after scandal-ridden previous MP Scott Benton was forced to resign. Not only did the party suffer a 26% swing to Labour – the third-highest in parliamentary by-election history – but they only just beat Reform UK into second place by 0.6% of the vote, demonstrating the potency of Reform for splitting the right-wing vote in ‘Red Wall’ seats the Conservatives have built their existing parliamentary majority on.

However, some hope has emerged for the Conservatives, with Ben Houchen narrowly winning re-election as Mayor of the Tees Valley and Labour sources reporting they expect Andy Street to hold on to his position as Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Both have built their profiles as being independent from the central Conservative Party and are known to have strong personal ‘brands’, which may have contributed to their success relative to the overwhelming majority of their party colleagues.

Nevertheless, the council results, and particularly the Blackpool South by-election, reinforces that the Conservatives are currently set for a resounding defeat at the general election, expected in the autumn. Speaking in Blackpool South, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said “a message has been sent directly to the prime minister… we’re fed up with your decline, your chaos, and division, and we want change”.

Meanwhile, Conservative Party Chairman Richard Holden acknowledged it was a ‘disappointing night’ for the party of government and said his ‘heart goes out’ to the defeated Conservative councillors, but added ‘that’s what you expect from parties in mid-term of government’.

 

What does this mean for energy/infrastructure sectors?

There are a multitude of factors that play out in local election campaigns. It is clear that voters across England wanted to send a message to the Conservatives that it is time for political change. Polling suggests that the economy is the top issue for voters still feeling the effects of the cost-of-living crisis, likewise the results demonstrate that there a is general hostility to the Conservative Party brand that feels beyond repair – in the short term at least. Local issues also come for the fore, and this can be seen in some of the results that have gone against the natural trend.

That said, there are number of important lessons that can be taken from the campaign from an infrastructure and climate change perspective:

 

Climate change

During the election campaign the government and some Conservative candidates tried to delineate from Labour on various climate policy matters. Susan Hall, a candidate in the London Mayoral race, notably emphasised her opposition to some of Sadiq Khan’s environmental policies as a central aspect of her campaign. However, last year’s Uxbridge by-election result, where Labour suffered a loss due to the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), appears to be an isolated incident rather than a trend and similar policies planned across the UK have not hindered the party’s chances.

Furthermore, recent reports indicate that the government might push forward its contentious agenda concerning increased oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) is anticipated to verify plans to grant licenses to approximately 30 companies for oil and gas exploration in areas designated for future offshore wind farms.

It’s important to note that the London mayoral election results are still pending. If incumbent Sadiq Khan performs poorly, it could suggest that the ULEZ has negatively impacted Labour’s support base in London, potentially undermining Khan’s future leadership ambitions, if he does indeed have any. This would also underscore the need for Labour to carefully balance environmental initiatives with the economic and lifestyle impacts on their constituents.

In other linked developments, The High Court has declared the government’s strategy to achieve climate targets and transition the economy to green energy as unlawful. The dispute revolves around the carbon budgets established by the government to achieve Britain’s net-zero target by 2050. Advocacy groups involved in the case contended that the plan relied excessively on risky technologies and downplayed the potential of missing targets.

Judge Clive Sheldon upheld four of the five arguments presented in the legal challenge. The government had asserted its compliance with the three preceding “carbon budget” targets to decrease emissions and its trajectory to meet forthcoming targets, although alternative evaluations cautioned otherwise. This marks the second instance where three organisations – Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and the Good Law Project – have taken legal action against the government regarding its climate strategies.

 

Infrastructure

A number of ambitious pledges on infrastructure and transport have been made by mayoral candidates, with Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham and Liverpool’s Steve Rotherham, both comfortable favourites for re-election, proposing the creation of a Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board, hoping for a two-stop connection between their cities and Manchester airport. Burnham has also promised extensions to the Metrolink tram system, with Rotherham guaranteeing three new Mersey rail stations if re-elected.

The West Midlands’ Andy Street – a narrow favourite for re-election at the time of writing – has worked with his Manchester counterpart to offer a range of alternatives to improve the rail connection between the two cities and has secured billions of reallocated investments for the ambitious Midlands Rail Hub.

Turning to the capital, many of the plans from Sadiq Khan’s previous manifestos have been suspended or are still in the works, such as Crossrail 2, the DLR extension to Thamesmead, and the extended Bakerloo line. As a result, Khan’s major construction promise if re-elected is the development of 40,000 new council homes, with at least 6000 rent-capped in line with local salaries.

 

Copper’s Olly Gough has written in further detail about the consequences of this year’s mayoral elections for the infrastructure sector.