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LONDON — The Conservative Party suffered a heavy night of losses in Rishi Sunak’s first major electoral test since he became prime minister in October.
Voters went to the polls on Thursday to elect local representatives in 230 councils across England. In results counted overnight, Labour gained control of some of its top target councils including Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent and seized Medway council from the Tories after 20 years. The Conservatives lost control of 10 councils and more than 200 council seats, leading to forecasts they are now on track to lose up to 1,000 seats — at the worst end of independent expectations.
The Liberal Democrats took control of Windsor and Maidenhead council, in former Prime Minister Theresa May’s constituency, for the first time in 16 years. Many seats are still to be counted through Friday, but the earliest results make for grim reading in Conservative headquarters.
Local election results are always an imperfect indicator. Thursday’s vote only took place in parts of England — and turnout is often significantly lower than for national elections. It means the results offer only a partial glimpse of the political headwinds.
Still, key party figures were already doing the read-across, with Labour jubilant and the Conservatives licking their wounds.
Labour’s national campaign coordinator Shabana Mahmood said her party now looked on course to win a majority in parliament. She told Sky News: “Under Keir’s leadership we’ve got ourselves not only back on the pitch, but we’re winning voters back in the areas that we need to win that next general election.”
Tory chairman Greg Hands admitted it had been a disappointing night for his party — but argued that Labour was not making as much progress as it needed to win the next general election.
He told Sky News: “Clearly it’s a disappointing time overall for the Conservatives, but I’m quite clear this is not the sort of euphoric Labour win that they got in 1995.”
Sunak insisted to broadcasters that his party was making progress in “key election battlegrounds” and added: “I’m not detecting any massive groundswell of movement towards the Labour Party or excitement for their agenda.”
Polling expert John Curtice offered a more measured take.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “The clear message of the night is indeed that the Conservatives have done badly. Not just in terms of the fact they have already lost 200 seats, but they might — although I emphasize might — end up losing 1,000 by the end of today despite their hopes that that wouldn’t be the case.”
But he added: “The slightly more difficult thing for the Labour Party is that yes, it has hit some of its targets and it has made significant gains already, [but] it is having to share the spoils with other opposition parties.
“And in particular, the one niggle the Labour Party will really have I think about these results if it continues is that yes, the swing in the local elections is almost what you would expect from the national polls — but not quite.”
Less than a third of councils have tallied their results so far, with the rest expected to do so through Friday. The next U.K. general election is expected to take place in 2024.