This analysis has been carried out as part of Sheffield University’s Workplace Insights programme.
Today, voters across the North will be going to the polls to choose their councillors. There are 51 councils with elections across the North, with 1,912 seats up for election, as well as some parish and town councils. Given the scale of these local elections, the time is ripe to explore what policies local parties are offering voters across the North.
With support from Sheffield University’s Workplace Insights programme, we analysed the top-level pledges being made by parties at a local level across the North during this campaign. We analysed 308 pledges, from 47 local-level parties, across 23 councils in the North. We focussed on ‘all-out’ council and mayoral elections, rather than those electing a half or third of councillors. This is because they are larger-scale electoral events for the parties involved with a stronger likelihood of party election materials and can be used as an illustrative sample of the wider set of council seats up for election.
The key issues for northerners
These elections are important in their own right, and specific local issues will play a key role in shaping voters’ preferences. Local issues cannot however be viewed in isolation from national issues, given that central government retains many of the policy levers to make a difference at the local level. We therefore decided to look at the ways in which parties at the local and national level are speaking to some of the themes that people in the North are most concerned about.
In YouGov’s polling of northerners at the beginning of the 2023 local election campaign, peoples’ top concern was the economy, followed by health, immigration, crime, and the environment.
Figure 1: Northerners' most important issues facing the country
Source: YouGov polling, fieldwork carried out 03/04/23
Beneath these priority areas, there are some indications of interventions northerners want to see: improved mental health services, increased wages and employment opportunities, reduced anti-social behaviour, and better public transport, according to IPSOS polling.
So, how closely do local parties' campaigns speak to the issues northern people have said they care most about?
Our findings from local parties in the North
To assess what local parties were offering voters, we looked at the manifestos and top pledge-cards available online of parties participating in the 23 all out council elections across the North (where all councillors are up for election at once) and mayoral elections to provide an illustrative sample of what is being offered to northern voters. This included reviewing parties’ social media platforms, online campaign leaflet archives, or contacting council group leaders directly (see methodological note below). We categorised the pledges being made by theme, in order to cross check them with peoples’ policy priorities.
We found that for local parties in the North, the economy and environment were clear priorities.
Figure 2: Local parties' specific pledges
Source: Authors' analysis of available election materials across 47 local-level parties
Most local parties that we reviewed made pledges about the local economy. Examples include supporting residents with the cost-of-living crisis, improving current job opportunities, and implementing training programmes to close skills gaps. These economic pledges made up 27 per cent of all specific pledges that we recorded.
Figure 3: Economic priorities for local parties
Source: Authors' analysis of available election materials across 47 local-level parties
Different political parties plan to address today's challenging economic environment in different ways. At this local level, Conservatives were more likely to promise to keep local taxes low, while Labour party groups were more likely to target increasing good employment through measures such as the real living wage, encouraging local business start-ups, and offering employment support services. Liberal Democrats tended to focus on expanding access to skills and apprenticeship opportunities and supporting local entrepreneurs.
Regeneration was an important area for economic development, with many parties pledging to ‘rejuvenate the town centre’, ‘transform the inner areas’ of towns, or ‘ensure funding is available’ for regeneration projects, for example. With YouGov polling showing that 79 per cent of adults stress the importance of being proud of the areas which they were from, the adoption of regeneration pledges undoubtedly speaks to large parts of the electorate and cross party.
The environment was the second-most important area for local parties, again included by the majority of local parties that we reviewed. Local pledges on the environment broadly supported brownfield site development and commitment to making their areas greener. However, again, parties set out their environmental approaches in different ways, ranging from hyper-local cleanliness initiatives like ‘support litter picking groups’ through to larger-scale change to meet net zero targets, like ‘invest in a ground-sourced heating network’ or ‘expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure’.
Crime has formed a significant part of recent national party discourse recently and local parties are also prioritising this issue. Among the local parties sampled, crime and anti-social behaviour was the third most common theme. Local Labour parties were more likely to call for increasing the number of police officers and better equipping youth outreach programmes; local Conservatives generally called to address dangerous driving and implement patrols in neighbourhood areas.
It is interesting that while councils have limited powers to address crime directly, local parties felt this was an important area to highlight; councils’ statutory duties on social care, for example, appeared less frequently. Nevertheless, health and social care did remain an important issue for local parties, being the fourth most common across the local parties analysed. Examples included increased funding for local mental health support or providing additional support for local hospitals to access adequate equipment.
Comparing parties and priorities
So, how closely are northern local parties aligned to peoples’ priorities? And are they more closely aligned than national parties to voter preferences?
At a local level, local party pledges broadly align with northerners' priorities. With the exception of the national issue of immigration policy, the top five priorities for northern voters were all reflected in the top four areas pledged by local parties that we analysed. While some local parties make reference to seeking further powers or calling on central government for action, parties locally are largely attempting to speak to these issues in terms of local solutions.
Table 1: Voters' and local parties' top five priorities
Northerners’ top five priorities (YouGov polling)
Local parties’ top five priorities (our analysis)
Democracy and trust
Source: YouGov polling and Authors' analysis
Both major national parties set out ‘top 5’ missions at the beginning of this year.
Table 2: Sunak's 'five priorities' and Starmer's 'five missions'
The Conservatives' five priorities
Labour’s five missions
Securing the highest sustained growth in the G7
Growing the economy
Making Britain a clean energy superpower
Reducing national debt
Building an NHS fit for the future
Cutting NHS waiting lists
Making Britain’s streets safe
Stopping small boats
Breaking down the barriers to opportunity at every stage
Source: Authors' analysis of publicly available materials
In comparison, at the national level, the Conservatives’ national priorities speak to the top three issues for northerners, but do not yet directly address the environment or crime. These are both important areas for people in the North at this time; crime and antisocial behaviour were the top issue for ‘levelling up’ in recent Ipsos polling. We found local Conservative parties placed more emphasis on these two issues than their national party’s priorities. Labour’s broad pledges nationally speak to four of the top five issues as per the YouGov polling, but omit immigration.
At the national level, pledges so far remain broad, while local parties across the political spectrum have included more specific proposals. On healthcare, for example, while Labour nationally pledged to ‘reform services to speed up treatment’, or the Conservatives pledged to ‘cut NHS waiting lists’, local parties addressed a wider range of health issues for residents in the North, such as social isolation, lack of mental health funding, and support for the elderly.
Building trust at the local level
These elections will also be an important test for national parties preparing for potential general election campaigns, and the Westminster commentariat will almost certainly focus on what the results mean for this context. But locally, what matters is the leadership voters choose to run the services that impact their day-to-day lives. In the era of levelling up and taking back control, decision-making closer to communities is more important than ever. At the start of the campaigning period, Ipsos published stark data on peoples’ views about levelling up. 80 per cent of people feel central government doesn't care about them, and a majority feel levelling up commitments will make no difference in their local area. A quarter even expect a negative impact.
Local government has historically been more trusted by people, and it is therefore unsurprising that the public wish to see central government ‘letting go’ through devolution. Ipsos’ polling indicated that 61 per cent believe local governments should have greater power over public expenditure, transport and services. We found that some local parties have made the issue of trust itself an important part of their campaigns; we found 20 pledges across 12 parties on how local democracy could be more transparent and empower citizens. Examples included Bolton Labour proposing place-based forums for residents to collectively decide on local spending and voice the views of minorities within the community, or Liverpool Liberal Democrats, who proposed open-to-all public consultation events ahead of important decisions.
Trust in local leaders is a vital component to enable the levelling up agenda to succeed. Today, voters will choose the local leadership they want to help level up their communities.
Eileen Andino-Munoz and Edward Hudson are interns at IPPR North from Sheffield University as part of the Workplace Insights programme.
Luke Myer is a research fellow at IPPR North.
In the production of this research, the Sheffield University’s Workplace Insights Interns hosted by IPPR North assessed what local parties were pledging by reviewing manifestos and pledge-cards available online, including by reviewing parties’ social media platforms, online campaign leaflet archives, or by contacting council group leaders directly. Researchers categorised the pledges being made by theme, in order to cross check them with northerners’ priorities.
There are two methodological points to consider in interpreting this analysis:
- Our research sample. Researchers created a sample by considering ‘all-out’ council elections, rather than local authorities electing a half or third of councillors in the North. This is because they are larger-scale electoral events for the parties involved with a stronger likelihood of party manifestos and election materials being available and can be used as an illustrative sample of the wider set of council seats up for election. Researchers also included the one directly elected mayoral election in the North. It is worth noting that some councils which usually elect in thirds (e.g. Oldham) are having extraordinary all-out elections due to boundary changes, and their manifestos may not be four years' long in focus, but were included.
- The accessibility of pledges from local parties. Researchers reviewed information accessible online or by contacting council group leaders directly. Examples included local parties’ social media platforms and campaign leaflet archives. The cut off date for this data to be available in order to be reviewed was 20th April 2023. There are clear limitations to this method; we could not consider many of the leafletting activities which local parties have been carrying out where online versions are not readily available. Researchers found that some local parties had little to no online presence, making it difficult for voters using these platforms to compare pledges and inform themselves before they cast their votes.
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