Of the four counties of Yorkshire, West Yorkshire is the closest to a genuine swing district of any of them when it comes to the local election. At New Labour’s height, Labour held all of the county’s 23 constituencies. Now only 13 Labour MPs remain.
Despite this, Labour has a majority on West Yorkshire’s five borough councils: Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, and Wakefield. 2021 may be the year that this changes. Each of these boroughs is electing a third of their councillors this year, in addition to casting votes for West Yorkshire’s first ever regional mayor.
The dynamics in the region are markedly different to those of the other counties. Although local independents are strong, neither the Lib Dems nor the Greens have a particularly strong presence on any of the local councils, with the exception of Leeds.
In addition, unlike in South Yorkshire, the whole county has been electorally active since the post-Brexit realignment of 2017-2019. Local elections in 2016, 2018, and 2019, have all but weeded out the last of the UKIP vote in West Yorkshire, leaving the Conservatives as the only real party of the right.
This means that, across much of the county, the competition is a relatively straight two-horse race. However, anything can change, and the trend across Yorkshire over the past few years has been one generally favourable to smaller parties. Whether this will be the year that major movements begin away from the Conservatives and Labour, will be seen on 6 May.
West Yorkshire and the quietest mayoral race
This is a race in which we at Yorkshire Bylines have to declare a degree of interest. Both Javed Bashir and Andrew Cooper – Liberal Democrat deputy mayoral and Green Party mayoral candidates respectively – have written articles for us. This race is also one that I’ve been covering for a while, and have been able to speak with Andrew, Stewart Golton (Liberal Democrats) and Bob Buxton (Yorkshire Party).
The West Yorkshire mayoral race promised to be relatively exciting. The internal campaign for the Labour nomination was a close-run contest between current MP and former actress Tracy Brabin, Bradford council leader Susan Hinchcliffe, and lawyer and activist Hugh Goulbourne. The nomination drew a fair degree of local and national press, as often is the case when Members of Parliament run for the mayoralties (see Andy Burnham as a prime example of this).
However, the race has been remarkable for how quiet it is. Brabin has been absent from most hustings, and has spoken little with local media. Meanwhile, although the county now has nine Conservative MPs, the Tories selected a previously unknown candidate, Leeds city councillor Matthew Robinson.
From all appearances it seems as though both parties are hoping to not rock the boat with this election, and ultimately they may well get their way. Even in 2019, Labour managed to keep a six-point lead over the Conservatives across the county, and there is little indication that Labour is due to do worse this year.
The local elections
West Yorkshire’s five boroughs – Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, and Wakefield – are all electing a third of their councillors this year. With four of these councils, these are councillors up for re-election from 2016. The exception is Leeds, which elected all of its councillors in 2018, after boundary changes. This means that, confusingly, the councillors up for election this year are those who came second in 2018, when each ward elected three councillors.
Labour currently holds 50 of Bradford’s 90 seats; while their majority is solid, it is not unimaginable that, on a bad night, they could lose it. However, on a purely mathematical level, this should be somewhere where the party can make gains rather than losses. Since 2016, when these seats were last contested, Labour and the Conservatives have only increased their strength in the city, pushing down the presence of the Liberal Democrats and local independents.
Several issues seem to be dominating the campaign in its final days. Criticism has been raised that a new housing development is being “rushed through” before the elections, while local Greens and Liberal Democrats have challenged the council on its record of combatting fly-tipping and providing children’s services respectively.
A few wards to watch here:
- Shipley: a marginal Green / Labour ward, being defended by the Greens.
- Craven, Ilkley, Keighley Central, Little Horton: no independent has won in Bradford since 2016, when these four wards were won by local candidates. Craven and Ilkley are now safe Conservatives, Little Horton a safe Labour, Keighley Central is marginal Labour / Conservative. Expect some gains from the big parties here.
- Bradford Moor: which the Liberal Democrats gained from Respect in 2016, but which Labour won in 2018 and 2019. Lib Dem Riaz Ahmed is defending his seat this time.
- Bolton and Undercliffe: which the Liberal Democrats won in 2016. Since then, councillor David Ward has resigned from the party and is standing as an independent. Expect a potentially surprising result.
- Keighley East: where Yorkshire party leader Bob Buxton is standing. Typically a safe Labour ward, the area now has a Conservative MP, Robbie Moore. Is Buxton hoping on a surprise win?
Calderdale is one of the few councils that has trended away from the Conservatives towards Labour since 2016. In 2019, the party won enough seats to get a majority on the council, the first in Calderdale since 2002. However, Labour’s majority is slim; only two seats keep it from no overall control.
The only major local issue up for discussion seems to revolve around a new housing development. For more information on the area, the Guardian actually ran a piece on the local elections in Calderdale, which is well worth a read.
Wards to watch out for will be:
- Greetland & Stainland: A Conservative / Lib Dem marginal.
- Luddendenfoot: which Labour gained from the Conservatives in 2018 and 2019. If a vaccine bounce helps the Tories, this will be where we see it.
- Ryburn: A Conservative / Independent marginal. An interesting bellwether of how the night looks for independents.
- Skircoat: which the Conservatives won in 2016, but which Labour took in 2018 and 2019.
- Warley: which the Lib Dems gained from Labour in 2016 and 2018.
Kirklees is one of the weakest places for Labour in West Yorkshire. With only 32 of the council’s 69 seats, the party is currently in minority administration in the borough. Moreover, unlike other regions in Yorkshire, there is no clear direction of travel between the major parties.
- Almondbury: High potential for a Liberal Democrat gain. The Conservatives won this ward from the Lib Dems in 2016, but then the Lib Dems won it again in 2018 and 2019. This should be a target area for the party.
- Golcar: A Lib Dem / Labour marginal. The Lib Dems are defending this year, which means that the consequences will have repercussions for the area and as a sign for overall Lib Dem performance.
- Kirkburton: A rare Conservative / Green marginal. With the Greens doing well nationally, this could be a potential pick-up.
- Lindley: A Liberal Democrat / Conservative marginal. A Tory gain here could easily be in the works.
Leeds may well be the most fun (read complex) of the districts of West Yorkshire. Not only is Labour sitting on a slim, five-seat majority, but the city has a strong Conservative, Lib Dem, and Green presence, not to mention two separate independent groupings!
The council has been one of the worst affected by the coronavirus crisis, and is scheduled to axe 600 jobs due to budget shortfalls. Central to local issues has been the proposed expansion of Leeds-Bradford airport, which critics say is ill-timed, with the climate crisis bearing down.
Wards to catch will be:
- Farnley and Wortley: Marginal Green / Lab, with the Greens defending this year.
- Pudsey: Marginal Conservative / Labour, with the Conservatives defending this year.
- Rothwell and Weetwood: Lib Dem / Labour marginals, with the Lib Dems defending Rothewell and Labour Weetwood this year.
- Morley South: Here, local independents hold two of the three council seats, and Labour is defending this year. With incumbent councillor Neil Dawson retiring, this could be prime for an independent pick-up.
Wakefield is simultaneously the least and the most interesting election this year. The least interesting because, even on a terrible night, Labour are nowhere near risking their majority in this area. But also the most, in as far as it is one of the few areas where the party has been consistently in decline, winning 19 wards in 2016, 16 in 2018 and 15 in 2019.
On the campaign trail, a variety of issue shave dominated, with the local Greens highlighting the climate crisis, whereas local Conservatives have accused Labour of pursuing “little vanity projects”. Meanwhile, council leader Denise Jeffery has defended Labour’s record on the environment and provision of free school meals.
Wards to watch will be:
- Hemsworth: a battleground between Labour and local independents.
- Knottingley: which the Lib Dems won from Labour in 2019. Labour are defending here this year.
- Horbury and South Ossett, and Ossett wards: which Labour won in 2016 but went to the Conservatives in 2018 and 2019.
And that’s it for our Yorkshire election preview! Join us on 7 May, as the results are counted – we hope to give some in-depth analysis and reporting on the results as they come in.