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Phil Rodgers: What I expect at Cambridge City Council elections in May 2024 – plus a look ahead to General Election and PCC poll

Our political commentator, Phil Rodgers, looks ahead to May’s local elections and forthcoming General Election.

If there is one thing we know about politics in 2024, it is that there is going to be a great deal of election campaigning, both nationally and locally.

Cambridge goes to the polls in May 2024
Cambridge goes to the polls in May 2024

While a General Election in May is still a possibility, a polling day in the first half of November is looking increasingly likely. The election campaign proper will run for five weeks, but unofficial campaigning has already begun, and will only intensify as the year goes on.

While we wait for the official General Election starting gun to be fired, here’s a look at the prospects for the local elections in May, when Cambridge voters will be choosing 14 city councillors as well as a police and crime commissioner.

Labour still dominate on the city council, though the political environment is getting gradually more difficult for them. As well as the challenge of their main opposition, the Lib Dems, they also face the growing strength of the Greens and Conservatives.

The Greens have increased their numbers on the council in recent years; after establishing a stronghold in Abbey, they gained a seat from Labour in Newnham last year, and are starting to eye up Coleridge as their next target. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have made a perhaps rather unexpected return to relevance in Cambridge. They increased their vote share in every ward at last May’s elections, coming close to a spectacular gain in Cherry Hinton, and achieving one at the King’s Hedges by-election in July, largely due to their key message of opposition to the congestion charge. It remains to be seen how effective this tactic will be now that the STZ plans have been halted, but the Conservatives will be pleased that their vote share held up in the Queen Edith’s by-election in November.

All this means that the days are gone when Labour could be virtually certain of victory in at least six of Cambridge’s 14 wards before campaigning had even started. The graph shows the majority in each ward at the most recent election or by-election. Where more than one seat was up simultaneously, this is based on the highest vote for each party.

Majorities in Cambridge City Council wards at the most recent elections (as of January 2024). Graph: Phil Rodgers
Majorities in Cambridge City Council wards at the most recent elections (as of January 2024). Graph: Phil Rodgers

I think only Petersfield, Romsey and Arbury still count as nailed-on certainties for Labour. Coleridge should also stay in the red column, though perhaps with a smaller majority if the Greens step up their campaigning there.

The two Chesterton wards will see more of a Labour/Lib Dem battle, though Labour remain favourites in both, while in Cherry Hinton, where Labour used to rack up towering majorities, the Conservatives will be hoping to improve on their surprisingly close second place last time.

The Lib Dems should hold on in Trumpington and Market, but Castle will likely be a close-run thing with Labour, as will Queen Edith’s if the recent by-election is any guide. The Greens should hold Abbey, and will be hoping to make another gain in Newnham, though the incumbent Lib Dems will almost certainly put up a stronger fight than they did last time.

In King’s Hedges, the Conservatives will be hoping to repeat their dramatic win in July’s by-election, but Labour will be working hard to hold on.

Labour are already four seats down from their high point in 2022, after losing two at last year’s elections, another at the King’s Hedges by-election, and a fourth with Mairéad Healy’s decision to switch to Independent in Romsey.

However, with 25 of the 42 city councillors they still have a comfortable majority. This time they are defending nine seats, and need to hold only six of them to retain a majority; five would be enough to keep control with the mayor’s casting vote. Although Labour are likely to hold the city council this year, a change of government at Westminster might make things harder for them in future, as voters who are fed up with the national government often express their feelings in local elections.

There’s been some discussion behind the scenes recently about whether the city council should switch from electing a third of the councillors at each election, as it does at the moment, to electing the whole council in one go every four years. South Cambridgeshire District Council made a similar change in 2018.

Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for the current system - if councillors are asking for votes every year they may be more likely to be responsive to residents; it’s easier for parties to find 14 good candidates in one go rather than 42; voters who are only in Cambridge for a short while - and there are a lot of these - still get a chance to elect a representative; and annual elections make it harder for the party in power to save up some particularly popular policy until just before polling day.

On the other hand, arguments in favour of “all ups” every four years are that they give more scope for councils to do things that are unpopular but necessary; there’s less time when council activity is restricted by pre-election “purdah” rules; and holding elections every four years is simply cheaper than doing so every year.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough police and crime commissioner Darryl Preston
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough police and crime commissioner Darryl Preston

As well as the council elections in May, voters across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough will also be choosing a police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the next four years. This post was created in 2012, and so far it has only ever been held by a Conservative.

I think it’s fair to say that the PCC elections haven’t generated a huge amount of excitement locally, though last time there was a fairly close result. The supplementary vote system saw many votes being transferred from the third-placed Lib Dem candidate to Labour’s Nicky Massey, who finished on 47.3 per cent, behind Conservative Darryl Preston on 52.7 per cent. It was a similar pattern of vote transfers that saw Nik Johnson narrowly elected for Labour as Combined Authority mayor.

The government has responded to these types of results by abolishing the supplementary vote, so this year’s PCC elections - and next year’s mayoralty - will be contested on the “first past the post” system. This greatly benefits Conservative candidates, as it eliminates the possibility of vote transfers between their opponents. Consequently, I think Darryl Preston is well placed to hold on to his post, despite the national opinion poll position.

If the General Election does end up being held on May 2, it is likely to have a pretty significant effect on the local elections on the same day, as many people will turn out who don’t normally bother voting in local elections alone. As things stand, that could be helpful for Labour - but there’s a long way to go, and General Elections don’t always turn out quite how people expect.

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