UK local elections: How to watch like a pro

LONDON — Buckle up! Voters head to the polls for a bumper day of local elections Thursday.

It’s a chance for 43 million people in England and Wales to pick their local reps in a host of institutions with proper decision-making powers.

But, with a U.K. general election looming, the local results are also going to be pored over for a sense of just how badly Rishi Sunak’s under-fire Tories might fare later this year.

POLITICO pulled together a handy crib sheet — including the best of the political parties’ spin wars and an hour-by-hour guide to the results — so you can really nerd out through the night.

What’s actually up for grabs — and where are the key fights?

About 2,600 seats on 107 English councils … 11 mayoralties including London … 37 Police and Crime Commissioner posts in England and Wales … 25 London Assembly members … one Blackpool South parliamentary by-election … and zilch in Scotland. The embattled Scottish National Party must be chuffed.

MAYORS: Labour Leader Keir Starmer told party chiefs in March he’s targeting the West MidlandsTees Valley and new East Midlands mayoralties, as they have clusters of marginal seats and high-profile Tory incumbents in Andy Street and Ben Houchen. Labour aides are still sure they’ll win East Mids, but both sides say West Mids is on a knife-edge. Any Labour person you talk to now insists Tees Valley (73 percent Tory in 2021) will stay blue. Each side accuses the other of expectation management. Labour is also eyeing an upset in the York and North Yorkshire contest. It’s still confident of a win in its North East stronghold, but there are a few jitters about independent candidate Jamie Driscoll.

BLACKPOOL SOUTH BY-ELECTION: Labour aides are also putting the bellows under this fight, triggered by the resignation of scandal-hit Conservative former MP Scott Benton. They say a swing of more than 12 percent would signal a general election majority. Also watching this one closely are a secretive band of Tories who want to oust Sunak before the election. If Nigel Farage’s right-wing Reform UK knock the Conservatives into third place, it could spur them into action.

POLICE COMMISSIONERS: Boring? Never! Now first-past-the-post, these races are a wind sock for regions where Labour needs to win big in the general election. Tory strategists claim they could lose up to half of their 29 PCCs. Labour strategists privately say they’re in with a chance of gaining up to 12, while the Liberal Democrats are eyeing three.

COUNCILS: The Conservatives and Labour are each defending nearly 1,000 seats which were last contested in 2021 — the Tories’ best year since 2008 and a low point for Labour. Expert analysis suggests the Conservatives could lose 500 seats while Labour gains 300.

The Tories are briefing that 2021 was their highest possible watermark and 500 losses sound accurate, while Labour aides are briefing that 300 gains are too high.

Where to watch the UK local elections

The BBC has an overnight show from 11.40 p.m. U.K. time with polling mega-brain John Curtice. That’s anchored by Laura Kuenssberg, Reeta Chakrabarti and Chris Mason … Jonathan Samuels hosts Sky’s results from midnight with election expert Michael Thrasher … Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live run from 11 p.m., including political scientist Philip Cowley … and ITV’s Good Morning Britain from 6 a.m. has Thrasher’s co-expert Colin Rallings, plus punditry from (duck for cover!) Tory ex-Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries and Labour grandee Harriet Harman.

The BBC should carry its “projected national share” (PNS) from team Curtice on Friday afternoon. This models each party’s percentage vote based on 800 council wards. It also gets projected as House of Commons seats per party — but that’s “heavily caveated” and “a bit of fun” for geeks, says University of Manchester’s Rob Ford, who helps compile it. Sign us up!

Labour Leader Keir Starmer told party chiefs in March he’s targeting the West Midlands, Tees Valley and new East Midlands mayoralties. | Eddie Keogh/Getty Images

Sky News is promising “the first digital projections” of Commons seats Friday afternoon, based on a model by Thrasher. Rallings and Thrasher’s “national equivalent vote” (NEV) projection also runs in the Sunday Times. Think of PNS and NEV as the Coke and Pepsi of the nerd world.

When do the key results come in?

Deep breath, kettle on — here’s our hour-by-hour guide.

Friday, 1 a.m.: Red-blue Hartlepool symbolised Labour’s nadir in 2021 but now the town hall only needs two more Labour seats for a majority.

2 a.m.: Labour strategists hope to unseat the Tory Avon and Somerset police commissioner and make gains in Tory North East Lincolnshire, where Labour ex-MP Melanie Onn is standing in the general. Lib Dems are talking down the odds of taking Portsmouth despite only needing four gains. Hart is a three-way fight between Tories, Lib Dems and a veteran community group.

3 a.m.: Labour is fighting for control of Harlow and Redditch, both Tory but with slim majorities and all seats up for grabs. Labour is also confident of gains on no-overall-control Thurrock, which has long flipped red-blue, went bust and is raising council tax by 8 percent. Stockport and Hull are two rare Lib Dem-Labour battles. Watch for whether Reform UK makes progress in Lincoln, red for most of four decades.

4 a.m.: Between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. is the Blackpool South by-election result. Red through Blair, Cameron and May then blue in 2019, Labour’s Chris Webb expects to win it back after gambling (um) enthusiast Scott Benton was ousted. But Labour campaigners fear awful turnout, which is low in Blackpool at the best of times (56.8 percent in 2019). Reform UK have claimed they could come second. Reform also has its eye on Labour-run Plymouth council, standing in 17 out of 19 seats.

5 a.m. onwards: Results dry up until lunchtime and the spin wars begin. The ruling Lib Dems hope to strengthen their hold over the Tories in Winchester, which has one of their big general election target seats.

Friday, noon: The Tories or Labour will each seize on the Tees Valley mayor to set their narrative if their candidate wins. Labour activists have had jitters about the North East mayor, which would be a shoo-in if not for independent Jamie Driscoll. In council-land, red Blackburn had Labour councillors quit over Gaza, but it shouldn’t swing control of the council. Same deal in Walsall, which is Tory-run but has a Labour target seat at the general.

1 p.m.: Labour aides privately reckon they’ve a chance of unseating the Tory NottinghamshireHumberside, and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough police commissioners. Lib Dems and Labour are neck-and-neck with a strong Green presence in studenty Sheffield, whose Hallam seat is a rare yellow-red Westminster marginal. Labour is gunning hard for the three extra seats it needs for a majority on Cannock Chase, whose Westminster seat is a bellwether since 1997. Burnley is a party rainbow, but watch three wards where Labour is standing against its own former members. The councillors quit the party over Starmer’s stance on Gaza.

2 p.m.: Labour expects to win the East Midlands mayoralty, a patch brimming with Westminster targets that went blue in 2019. Ex-Labour MP George Galloway is punching his old party’s Gaza bruise in Rochdale — his Workers Party is fielding 13 candidates. But Labour should win back some long-lost ground in Nuneaton & Bedworth and edge ahead of Tories in Hyndburn, a red wall target where activists have attacked Conservatives for a deal with the Greens. Watch for Labour gains in Crawley (a general election target) and Green progress in Tory Solihull. Tories lost control of blue-yellow Brentwood last year, with all seats now up for grabs … and are two seats off losing Basildon.

3 p. m.: Labour activists whisper that they could win the new York & North Yorkshire mayoralty, an upset in a Tory heartland — and Rishi Sunak’s back yard. Labour also needs only two more seats to control Milton Keynes for the first time in 24 years, and is going for the Tory Bedfordshire and Leicestershire police commissioners. Lib Dems have eyes on the Tory Surrey police commissioner. Labour won Kirklees back in 2022 and will want to strengthen its majority, down to one after councillors quit over Gaza. Labour also had Gaza resignations in no-overall-control Hastings, a Green target area with financial woes.

4 p.m.: Watch line-by-line results in red Wolverhampton and blue Dudley to predict West Midlands mayor Andy Street’s odds of survival … not to mention swing Westminster seats. Labour will likewise watch for gains in Westminster target areas SwindonPendle and Bury … Adur on the south coast, now a Westminster target thanks to changing demographics … and on a good night could win back Tamworth after two decades. Dudley hosted Sunak’s local election launch last year and Starmer’s this year. Labour’s also battling for the LancashireNorthamptonshire and Cleveland police commissioners.

Watch line-by-line results in red Wolverhampton and blue Dudley to predict West Midlands mayor Andy Street’s odds of survival. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

And over in Lib Dem land: The party reckons it can consolidate recent control of bankrupt Woking, take overall control of Wokingham (Tory MP John Redwood’s back yard) and might even control Tunbridge Wells.

5 p.m.Worcester has all seats up for grabs after a Labour-Green coalition … while Labour will want to win back seats it lost from red Rotherham in 2021 … and hammer Tories in Rugby who went into minority last year. Likewise Labour lost its majority over Gaza in Oxford, which also has 11 candidates for the Independent Oxford Alliance that opposes London-style traffic measures. Lib Dems are eyeing the Tory Gloucestershire police commissioner, with previous holder Martin Surl running on a yellow ticket to get his old job back.

6 p.m. onwards: Watch Bristol for any Green gains at Labour’s expense (despite Labour pointing to an anti-Semitism row) … and Green gains in Reigate & Banstead, which became the last Surrey council to slip from Tory control in March. “Stevenage Woman” (sigh) will vote in that bellwether, but the council is already red, and Labour is fighting to unseat the police commissioner in Derbyshire, where Sunak launched this year’s campaign. Lib Dems want overall control of Elmbridge (departing local MP: Dominic Raab) and should knock Dorset and Gloucester into no overall control.

Saturday afternoon: Mega results for the West Midlands and London mayors set the final narrative in train ahead of the Sunday shows. Greens are duking it out in Stroud and Norwich, where Labour lost control amid infighting in November. Watch how Lib Dems perform for the Hertfordshire police commissioner. Ditto Labour for the Cheshire and Thames Valley police commissioners.

Sunday afternoon: A dull final dribble — the Tory Kent and Sussex police commissioners and Labour fiefdom council Salford. And you’re done.

This guide first appeared in London Playbook, POLITICO’s twice-daily guide to what’s driving the day in Westminster. Sign up here.