SWINDON: Rishi Sunak faces his first big electoral test as British prime minister next week in local polls where the opposition Labour Party hopes to capitalise on a year of chaos for the governing Conservatives, ahead of a national election expected next year.
Sunak has tried to restore the credibility of the Conservative Party since coming to office in October, but he has struggled to draw a line under the turmoil that beset his predecessors despite breakthroughs on issues like Brexit.
The scandal-ridden premiership of Boris Johnson and the chaotic economic policies that brought down Liz Truss within two months presented Sunak with an unenviable inheritance: a double-digit poll lead for a resurgent Labour.
With voters going through a cost-of-living crisis and inflation stubbornly high at about 10%, local council votes in much of England on May 4 give Labour an opportunity to prove their electoral credentials.
It is towns like Swindon in southwest England which Labour leader Keir Starmer is targeting in a bid to return his party to power at the next national election, due before January 2025.
Swindon has returned lawmakers representing the winning party at every national election since 1983, making it a bellwether and a key target for Labour, who chose the town for the launch of their local election campaign.
“It’s obviously a key staging post in terms of where we anticipate the next general election will be,” Jonathan Reynolds, a Labour lawmaker in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, told Reuters during a visit to Swindon.
He expressed optimism ahead of the vote, reflecting polls which give Labour an average lead of around 15 percentage points – a substantial lead but well down from highs of around 30 points during Truss’s premiership.
Keiran Pedley, director of politics at Ipsos, said Sunak had been a steadying influence but would have to deliver on issues like the cost of living to improve his party’s ratings further ahead of the next national election.
“Whilst Sunak’s personal poll ratings aren’t great, they’re not toxic in the way that his predecessors have been,” he said.
Council elections can provide an indication of the public mood but also result in protest votes that overstate the unpopularity of the government, or be swayed by local factors.
David Renard, the Conservative leader of Swindon Borough Council, said the national picture might hinder his attempts to focus the campaign on more local issues.
“Whilst I think most voters think that the prime minister and the chancellor have steadied the ship in the last few months, there’s still a little bit of residual anger about some of the things that went on last year,” he told Reuters.
Swindon has a long industrial history as a site of rail works from the 19th century until 1986. While the borough has several prosperous parts, some of its neighbourhoods are among the 10% most deprived in the country.
The Office for National Statistics in 2021 ranked Swindon as one of Britain’s highest productivity areas outside of London thanks to its car manufacturing. But Honda closed its Swindon site that same year. US industrial real estate firm Panattoni will open a logistics and manufacturing hub at the site.
Zurich Insurance officially opened its new Swindon office block this month, and Jim Robbins, a local Labour councillor, said the town centre needed further regeneration, with changing working habits since the Covid-19 pandemic hampering footfall.
He added that national stories like the resignation of Sunak’s deputy Dominic Raab after a bullying investigation was a reminder “that there is a lot of Conservative chaos”.
“It does feel like the mood is changing in Swindon as its changing in the rest of the country,” he told Reuters.
In its town centre, many voters expressed unhappiness with the Conservatives but some had a degree of sympathy for Sunak personally.
Carolyn Hyland, 57, a marketing executive, said she was likely to vote for Labour next week but was undecided heading into a potential general election.
“Actually, I quite like Rishi Sunak. I do think he’s got principles,” she said. “He’s trying to be more transparent. But there’s still going to be a legacy from the last leadership.”