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Battlegrounds – The key contests in the 2023 Brighton local election.

The election:


The local elections this year will see Brighton going to the polls to decide who will represent residents and hold council officers to account for the next four years. There are 23 wards to be contested and some wards will elect two candidates and others will elect three, with a total of 54 councillors to be elected. Crucially, these multi-member council wards raise the possibility that one area may return split representation, meaning two Labour and one Green could be elected in one ward. With individual candidates incentivising voters to split their voting, split voting could change the political landscape of the council. Further, the electoral boundaries have changed since 2019, creating two new wards and altering some other wards. This all creates much uncertainty and makes this multi-party contest intensely competitive.


"The multi-party nature and the strong local rivalry between Labour and the Greens will make battles intense and this local election highly competitive and unpredictable. "

As with any local elections, there will be campaigning over the state of local services, specific local concerns, council transparency, house building, council finances and of course, potholes. As in previous elections, the issue of waste collection will also likely become a key issue in the campaign as problems around bin disputes and collections have flared up since the last election. The approaches of local candidates and parties will have an impact on how the campaign unfolds and the election result, but there will also be national trends that will shape the key battlegrounds and parties’ strategies. The contest will likely be a three-way battle between the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives, but smaller party and independent candidates may be able to impact the result, potentially making it into a multi-party battle.


Current council composition:


The 2019 Brighton City council elections saw Labour winning 20 seats, the Greens 19 and the Tories 14, with one independent being elected. In terms of the vote share, the Greens came out on top with 34.1% of the vote (gaining 9.3%), Labour was a close second with 32.5% (losing 1.2%) and the Tories placed third with 21% (losing 7.6%). From these changes, the Greens were the main beneficiary, gaining 8 seats, whilst Labour lost 3 and the Tories 7. Since 2019, the Greens have gained one councillor in a by-election from Labour, whilst Labour has gained two seats from the Conservatives in by-elections. The main change has been the growth in independents, five of which were elected as Labour councillors, with one councillor citing failures over anti-Semitism as a core reason for this change. This means that although Labour and the Greens were very evenly split the Greens have found themselves with five more councillors than Labour, putting them as the leaders going into these elections and Labour as the main opposition.


In 2019, figure one shows Labour secured representation most in Portsalde, Central Hove, Westbourne, Goldsmid, East Brighton, Queen’s Park, Mouslsecombe and Hollingdean. The Greens secured seats in the centre of Brighton, Brunswick, Regency, St Peter’s Elm Groove, Preston Park and also in Withdean. The Conservatives performed well in Hove Park, Hangleton, Patcham, Woodingdean and Wish Ward (although they lost in Wish Ward in a recent by-election). An Independent candidate came first in Rottingdean, showing how smaller party candidates can influence Brighton City Council local election results.

Figure 1 – The results of the 2019 Brighton City Council election by ward. The winner is defined as the Party whose candidates won the most votes.

The Key Battlegrounds:


Greens:


The Greens will hope to gain seats in the wards of Central Hove, Goldsmid, Queen’s Park and Westbourne. All these sets have candidates that in 2019 had majorities of less than 10%. Central Hove, Goldsmid and Queen’s Park have less than 3%. All these wards were won by Labour, meaning that the Greens will be seeking to take seats of Labour candidates in these key battlegrounds. Interestingly, the Greens are not the main challengers in any of the seats the Conservatives hold as Labour finished in second place in all these seats in 2019. Further, the Greens secured limited support in Conservative-held seats compared to other seats they will defend and target, see figure two. Therefore, this means that the Green Party’s battles will likely be with the Labour Party.


The Greens will be both on the defensive and the offensive. The last local elections were held at a good time for the Greens, with both Labour and the Conservatives polling poorly due to the unresolved issue of Brexit. Yet, this time around Labour is performing much better in the polls and this means that Labour will likely increase its vote in Brighton, putting the Greens on the defensive. Yet, with Labour failing to lead the council and five of their councillors going independent this could encourage the electorate to think Labour is not able to lead the city council, meaning local factors might provide the Greens with opportunities to take Labour-controlled seats. This will mean the Greens in some areas will be defending whilst in other areas they will be seeking to make gains.

Figure two – The distribution of the Green Party vote in the 2019 Brighton City Council election.

Labour:


The Labour Party’s campaign will likely be the most complicated as they will be defending seats and trying to take seats off both the Greens and Conservatives. In terms of the seats Labour can most easily gain, five seats have majorities of less than 4%. Two of these seats are held by the Greens (Hanover & Elm Grove and Hollingdean & Stanmer). The other three are held by the Conservatives (Hangleton & Knoll, Wish and Woodingdean). This provides difficulty to Labour’s strategy as they will be fighting on two fronts and these fronts require winning over different types of votes. Labour will be required to win left-liberal voters from the Greens and centre-ground/ centre-right voters from the Conservatives. Vitally, these voting groups often comprise of different demographics and require different messages to be won over. Labour will hope that Conservative voters angered at the state of our national politics and public services will be motivated to go their way, whilst also hoping that local problems will motivate Green voters to switch over to them. The good news for Labour is that despite a difficult local election for Labour in 2019 their vote share was relatively strong in the seats they will be targeting, see figure three. Also, in by-elections they have already taken two seats from the Conservatives (Wish & Rottingdean wards), again giving Labour confidence in making gains. Therefore, Labour will be aiming to make enough advances to retake control of the council and possibly gain a working majority.


Labour will also be defending Central Hove, Goldsmid and Queen’s Park from Green campaigning that will seek to make gains off them. This again makes their campaign more complicated as they will have to try and defend and attack the Green campaign at the same time. However, as Labour has improved in the polls nationally, and this will likely filter through into their Brighton vote share, the Tories will likely struggle to take seats off them, making their defence against Conservative campaigns relatively simple.

Figure three - The distribution of the Labour Party vote in the 2019 Brighton City Council election.


Conservatives:


In 2019, the Conservative Party faced a difficult election as PM Theresa May was facing a revolt against her Brexit deal and looked likely to resign by the end of the year. This time around the Tories would have thought they would be going into these local elections in a more advantageous position. Yet, this may not be the case as for nearly a year the Tories have drifted from one crisis to the next, forcing two Prime Minister’s resignations. There is a feeling that many services ate just not working and the polls show the Conservative Party to be consistently under 30% of the national vote. This likely will filter into local election results. The Conservatives could make a gain in Rottingdean if they can beat any independent candidates standing. However, other seats they could target have large majorities and with them poorly performing in the national polls it will be difficult to make significant gains. Further, figure four shows their vote share in the last election was low in the areas they could make gains, meaning they could struggle to gain enough support in the wards they could gain more councillors. Therefore, as some of the seats hold have small majorities over Labour and the Labour Party are polling more strongly it is likely the Tories will be in defence mode going into this local election.



Figure four - The distribution of the Conservative Party vote in the 2019 Brighton City Council election.

The unknown impact of Independents and other candidates:


Finally, there will be many different parties standing in all 23 seats, bringing unknown factors of Independents and smaller parties who might break through the current three-party system in Brighton. Local factors may aid or limit this possibility, but if such trends do materialise they could affect the election outcome in unpredictable ways. For example, previous Labour councillors standing now as Independents might be able to gain traction from problems Labour experienced with its internal politics after the May 2019 election. If this occurred, then this may limit Labour’s ability to make gains and could even help force the council into no overall control status. Further, any smaller party or Independent candidates campaigning on specific local or national issues could impact the election result by preventing the Greens or the Conservatives from winning, possibly even resulting in an outsider managing to break through and gain a council seat.


In summary:


These local elections look to favour Labour, who will be seeking to exploit positive national trends and any local problems the Green administration has faced. Labour will be both on the offensive and defensive. The Conservatives will likely be on the defensive and will hope to keep what they have and make one or two gains, whilst the Greens will be seeking to make gains off Labour and defend their held seats. Labour last time did win, at least in terms of the number of councillors that were elected, and they will be seeking to repeat that result, but this time with a much clearer majority. Their former councillors who are now independents will seek to stop this and force no overall control, whilst the Greens may try to exploit this problem for Labour so as to keep, and possibly even extend, their current lead.

Yet, local elections are rarely this predictable as local factors intervene and smaller parties and Independents make unexpected impacts. Therefore, whilst the Labour will perhaps be going into this local election as the most optimistic party and the Greens will be hopeful of keeping Brighton as one of the few Green strongholds, there is still much campaigning to be done and many contests that will need to be fought before the result is decided. The multi-party nature and the strong local rivalry between Labour and the Greens will make these battles intense and this local election highly competitive and unpredictable.


Published and written by James Prentice. 17/04/2023.

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