Counting has got underway in this year’s crunch local elections – with results expected to start rolling in from midnight.
Voters are deciding who runs services in 230 (out of 317) local authorities in England, with around 8,000 councilors’ seats up for grabs.
Mayors are also being chosen in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough in what is the biggest round of local elections since 2019.
It’s also the biggest test of public opinion this side of the next general election, and Labour’s chance to capitalize on national polls suggesting it is on course to form the next government.
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Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told Sky News it was “definitely going to be a tough night for us Conservatives – [we are] 13 years into government and we’ve had a few choppy moments.”
Meanwhile, Labor MP and campaign coordinator Shabana Mahmood MP said her party “expects to make gains and show we’re making the progress in the places we need to win at the next election”.
Voting opened at 7am and closed at 10pm, giving people a 15-hour window to mark their ballots.
And for the first time this year, people were required to take ID with them to be eligible to vote.
The move led to concerns about a drop in turn-out, and anecdotal evidence has shown some people being turned away from polling stations.
But there is confusion over whether the true impact will be recorded.
After voting ended, the Electoral Commission said “overall, the elections were well run”, but that should not mean “other impacts” are overlooked and data needed to be analysed.
“We already know from our research that the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and that some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result,” a spokesperson added.
“It will be essential to understand the extent of this impact, and the reasons behind it, before a final view can be taken on how the policy has worked in practice and what can be learned for future elections.”
Mr Heaton-Harris defended the new policy from his government, telling Sky News it was a “thoroughly good thing – it means that you can be completely sure that your elections are well tested and safe”.
He added: “I don’t think, actually, considering this is a relatively big change for our politics in England, that there’s been any of the big problems that people warned might come from this.”
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But shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he was worried about the impact, having heard stories throughout the day of people being turned away.
He told Sky News: “I worry about those people who have either been deterred from going and having a vote or have been given the wrong information, and I think there needs to be a review about how this worked in practice in the course of these local elections.
“As far as I am concerned, one eligible voter turned away and disenfranchised is one too many. It is not acceptable and I think the government ought to reflect over whether they have used a sledgehammer to crack a nut with pretty sad consequences from people who have been disenfranchised.”
The elections come against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis and record-high NHS waiting lists, key issues which have dominated campaigning.
Opposition parties have also sought to attack the government’s record on crime and water pollution in a bid to make gains from the Tories.
In an apparent attempt to manage expectations, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Wednesday that the elections will be “tough” for the Conservatives.
But Sir Keir Starmer was also coy about his party’s chances, saying only that he hoped to make “progress”.
As the polls closed, a Tory spokesman said: “This will be a tough night for the Conservatives. Any government which has been in power for thirteen years is highly likely to lose seats – independent experts Rallings and Thrasher have said we could lose over 1,000 seats.
“But if Labor want to be in with a chance of taking office after the next general election as they did in 1997, they need to be making very significant gains as they did in 1995 – the last most comparable election – anything less than that will pose serious questions for Labor HQ.”
See full elections results as they come in
Labour’s Ms Mahmood said the party was “proud of the positive campaign we have run”, adding: “This is a cost of living election. We have set out the choices we would make to help people through the cost of living crisis, cut crime and cut NHS waiting lists, but the Tories have been silent on the issues that matter most.
“If the Conservatives go backwards from their disastrous 2019 local election results, the voters will have sent a damning message about Rishi Sunak’s leadership.”
And the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper added: “I have knocked on countless doors in recent weeks and heard real anger and frustration from voters who are sick and tired of being taken for granted by this Conservative government.
“Tonight, their voices will be heard.”
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The seats were last contested in 2019, when then Prime Minister Theresa May was weeks away from resigning, with her party losing 1,300 seats.
Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn at the time, also suffered losses with the Lib Dems, Greens and independents coming off best.
Labor will be looking to win back these areas – and take seats directly from the Tories.
According to Professor Michael ThrasherSky News elections analyst, there are 22 Conservative-controlled councils whose fates are on the line due to their small majorities.
A loss of just two seats means Brentwood and Windsor & Maidenhead fall, three seats and North West Leicestershire and South Gloucestershire go the same way, for example.
Here are his benchmarks for what would make a good and bad night:
• Fewer than 300 losses: This would see the party winning council seats back from Independents, with Labor and the Lib Dems not prospering.
• 500 losses: The party could argue “mid-term blues” and will assume Labor could be caught before the general election.
• 750 losses: This would indicate a clear swing to Labour, but still less than opinion polls imply.
• 1,000 losses: A very bad night, with a third of all seats defended by the Conservatives lost.
• 700 win: The best local elections for at least a decade. Labor would look on its way to becoming the largest party in Westminster, even if short of a majority.
• 450 win: These results would be better than in 2022, when local elections took place in Greater London.
• 250 win: A disappointing result for Labor in the context of recent opinion polls.
• Under 150 gains: A step backwards for Labour.
• 150+ wins: Eating into Conservative territory and could put some marginal constituencies in play at the next election.
• 50-100 wins: Comfortable enough in their own heartlands but only modest further progress.
• Fewer than 50 wins: Fewer than 50 gains: Still struggling to pose a real threat to the Conservatives in the south.
Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands has said they could lose as many as 1,000 council seats, but many political analysts suspect he was managing expectations.
However, if Labour, riding high in national polling, fails to make decent gains then party leader Sir Keir Starmer would be put under pressure.
The party will need to make gains in traditional Red Wall areas like Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent to prove it is winning back supporters who have turned away from them in recent years.
But a big win would be ending Conservative rule in battleground areas such as Medway and Swindon.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have been on a mission to win votes in southern Tory heartlands like Windsor & Maidenhead.
When will the results be announced?
Sixty-two councils expect a result from midnight through to breakfast time.
More than half the 230 councils file their results in mid to late afternoon, while around 30 are expected to declare their results after teatime.
There are no local elections in Scotland or Wales, but voters in Northern Ireland will be able to have their say on 18 May, with 462 seats across 11 local councils up for grabs.
Sky News will be bringing you full coverage both on TV and online.