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Equality on the ballot? 2024 Local Elections preview

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The local elections are often only watched as a way to measure the strength of our political parties; with a general election looming, this tendency will be even stronger this year. 

But it also determines who’ll run swathes of the country and our lives. Local authorities can make a big difference to inequality when they’re ambitious and working with local residents.

 The UK is an incredibly centralised country; As we’ve documented before, local government in the UK has been depowered and defunded for decades. But local government does affect a lot, from housing and social care to how our local economy is structured. Some have helped hand over community assets for immense private profit; others managed to build more equal communities all over the country; from landlord licensing in Oxford and community wealth building in Preston to Nottingham’s municipally-owned tram system funded by a levy on workplace parking spaces and tackling homelessness by giving unhoused people homes in Greater Manchester. There’s been a surge in municipal radicalism, as local people have pushed back against the constraints of our unequal system.

As well as asking councillors and candidates to sign up to our pledges, we’re watching some elections closely this year to see how local democracy is evolving. This year’s elections are only taking place in England, with the exception of four police and crime commissioner elections in Wales.

Fairness Five Signers in Power

New System for Sheffield

One third of Sheffield’s councillors are up for election. Sheffield is run by a committee system managing work equally across the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green Parties, who between them won all but two seats in the last election. The Sheffield Green Party, with 14 out of 84 seats, signed our pledges.

Sheffield Council is most well known for the long-running tree-felling scandal, where the Council signed a £1.5bn Private Finance Initiative deal in 2012 with an outsourcing firm that gave broad responsibility for 17,500 street trees over 25 years. The felling rapidly became controversial, and an independent inquiry concluded last year that the council had behaved dishonestly.

This, in part, led to a grassroots campaign that gathered 26,000 Sheffielders to sign a petition triggering a referendum under the 2011 Localism Act over changing Sheffield’s from a strong leader model, where a leader appoints a cabinet from the ruling parties, to committee system that shares responsibility for governance more proportionally. 

Committee systems are often condemned as unwieldy and idealistic compared to the “practical” strong leader models, but not only did the referendum succeed, but the long-time Labour leader of the Council, Bob Johnson, lost his seat. That 2021 election also returned a three-way split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and Greens that has persisted since then.

It’s created a pluralistic Council that shares more power between political parties; the first major city in the UK to change how it’s governed this way, (although Bristol followed in 2022). It’s hard to measure success for Sheffield’s new approach in the time we’ve had; although there has been a 70% increase in public questions since the change, the local plan the council adopted saw 9 Labour councillors suspended rather than vote for it. Sharing power more equitably among political parties is an improvement, but does little to empower Sheffielders or give them more democratic control. The Sheffield Greens themselves believe that it’s been a success, while noting the need to do more work putting people at the heart of decision-making.

This election will be a major test of whether Sheffielders like this approach; the polls nationally are very different from the last round of Sheffield elections and Labour are pushing hard to retake a majority position on the council, to the point that the national Labour Party forced the removal of the Sheffield Labour leader and the re-selection of Sheffield Labour councillors, along with placing the local party in special measures, after they failed to increase their seats in the 2023 election. Sheffield’s short power-sharing experiment could be about to end.

Progress in Manchester and Leeds

Both Manchester Labour and Manchester Liberal Democrats signed our Fairness Five Pledges, and have implemented two: the living wage pledges. One third of all councillors are up for election.

The leader of Leeds Council signed the pledges, and Leeds Labour has implemented one pledge. One third of all councillors are up for election.

Although the Liberal Democrats and Greens have gradually chipped seats away since Labour turned Manchester into a one–party council in 2015, there’s no real doubt that Manchester Labour will form the next administration. Similarly, there is no doubt Labour will remain in power in Leeds. 

Manchester’s latest Equality Objectives for 2024-2028 commit to introducing the Socio-Economic Duty, a key campaign ask of ours, “in due course”, which would be Manchester’s third completed pledge. Leeds Council committed to the Living Wage for all staff, one of our key pledges, in February 2023. Some progress had been made, with hopefully more to follow. 

Feedback from Bolton

One third of Bolton’s councillors are up for election, and one of Bolton’s Labour councillors signed up to our pledges in 2023. They fed back to us about their work since:

Bolton had been led by a Conservative coalition from 2019 to 2023, with intermittent support from the Liberal Democrats and local independent groups. However, the 2023 election made Labour the largest party, forming a new administration with support from the local parties. According to them, the council is making “steady progress” on the Fairness Five Pledges, extending the Living Wage to care workers among their other employees, while working on extending it to contractors as contracts expire. 

Given national polls, it seems likely Labour will take a majority on the council since they’re only 3 seats away. 

Other Key Races

Collaborative Democracy in Bristol?

All council seats in Bristol are up for election, in their first election under a new system of governance. No Bristol based parties have signed our Fairness Five pledges yet.

In 2022, Bristol voted to abolish their directly elected mayor and become the second major city to adopt the committee system. This will be the first election after that transition, and with all councillors up for election, offers the chance for a major shift in how Bristol is governed. As with Sheffield, dislike of their strong leader played a large part in the shift, as previous Mayor Marvin Rees clashed with councillors over big decisions. Notably, the outgoing mayoral administration is in charge of organising and resourcing the transition to the committee model, and outgoing Mayor Rees has been sharply critical of the new system and criticised in turn for making the transition harder than it needed to be (for example, Sheffield had 6 full time and 7 part time staff working on the change. Bristol’s outgoing administration has allocated 2). As a result, the relationship between Bristol’s main parties isn’t great.

The 2021 election in Bristol left the council divided, with the Greens equalling Labour’s seats for the first time with sizeable Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups, but only Labour’s mayor able to exercise power (another of the main arguments for a more equitable committee system). This time, the national polls are very different, and Labour will be hoping to win a strong majority to keep the city out of Green hands, while the other parties are aiming for a similar result to last time that will split power and allow a pluralistic committee system. 

This also foreshadows the coming general election, where the new seat of Bristol Central is a key Green target to win their second-ever MP. Bristolians will be watched closely to determine whether progressive-inclined voters feel safe voting for Green or Liberal Democrat candidates despite Labour’s large polls leads and messaging that it’s them or the Conservatives.

Community Wealth Building on the Ballot

Plymouth and Preston, two pioneers of different approaches to Community Wealth Building, are electing one third of their councillors. No political parties in either city have yet signed the pledges, although some Green Party candidates have

Community Wealth Building was coined in 2005 in the US: communities facing deindustrialisation and the end of state-directed investment in people began to struggled with their conventional development plans, which often partnered with private investment and led to huge amounts of wealth being sucked out of public authorities as profits, as well as short-term strategies aimed at paydays for investors rather than long-term better lives. Instead, they started to put public funds into locally and often democratically owned co-ops, trusts, businesses, and institutions. 

In the UK, this has often been referred to as the Preston Model, after Preston in Lancashire adopted the approach in 2012. Like the American examples, Preston had suffered from deindustrialisation in the 1980s. The removal of large parts of the UK’s welfare state and social contract investment in homes, infrastructure, and people made it difficult for communities to adapt or grow. The private business-centric regeneration funding that replaced it (by planning to clear and redevelop 32 acres of central Preston as a shopping centre) in the 2000s came to an abrupt end with the financial crisis.

Instead, Preston began looking at ways to spend money locally. A 2013 analysis found that only £1 of each £20 spent by Preston’s public services – the police, museums, colleges – was actually spent in Preston. The council convinced 6 key institutions to commit to spending locally wherever they could; spending in Lancashire dramatically increased as local firms won contracts, unemployment fell, and health, transport, work-life balance, and skills all improved faster than the UK average. 10 years on, the project isn’t without missteps (an attempt to create their own development bank was abandoned in 2022) but the mission is alive and well, with construction on a publicly-owned leisure complex underway that focuses on involving trade unions, using local businesses, and training young people; new co-operatives founded, a community land trust, and a co-operative for the local GRT community; and plans for municipal internet and renewable energy provision.

Less studied is Plymouth’s Community Wealth Building approach. Where Preston focused on getting anchor institutions to spend locally as a springboard, Plymouth City Council had larger budgets, powers and borders – as well as political back-and-forth control that made long-term planning more difficult. So, instead, they focused on fostering co-operatives and new community partnerships like Plymouth Energy Community, a solar energy co-operative that’s now also developing community-owned net zero homes. Other community trusts have been set up to replace lost industry, including textiles and design, or to themselves help foster local businesses, like the council-owned local-food only school meal catering business, HR and accountancy services for new co-operatives, and a local crowdfunding service.

Plymouth’s approach has attracted other groups interested in community development, with a social enterprise sector growing alongside the co-operatives and democratically-owned companies.

In this election, both approaches will be tested as one third of councillors face re-election. The success of the Preston model of development seems to be reflected in a popular council; unlike other towns in Lancashire and the North East, which have tended to see backlashes to governing Labour councils in the late 2010s, Preston’s Labour council kept a strong majority. Plymouth, on the other hand, has been politically volatile: the 2018-2021 Labour council was replaced with a minority Conservative administration relying on a collection of independents. A draw in 2022 continued the infighting, while 2023 saw a Labour recovery alongside a new Independent Alliance after another tree-felling scandal. 

Preston’s council will be looking to continue their successful inequality-fighting, community wealth building strategy. In Plymouth, voters will likely keep the Labour council they elected last year, which may allow for a longer-term strategy and more direct action from the council rather than relying on arms-length social enterprise bodies, but the Conservatives will be hoping to retake the city, while Plymouth’s Greens and Independents have built a lively tradition over the last few elections that they’ll hope to keep despite large national poll leads for Labour.

Oxbridge Rivals

Half of Oxford’s councillors and one third of Cambridge’s councillors are up for election. Cambridge Green Party, with four of the 42 seats, have signed our pledges. No parties in Oxford have yet.

Housing is a major contributor to inequality and a key election issue in Cambridge and Oxford, where Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove announced plans to build 150,000 new homes in Cambridge as part of a “science quarter.” Councils in the region have described the plans as “nonsensical”. It’s a classic local election planning battle, only writ much larger. Following on from last year’s backlash against plans to introduce a Cambridge congestion charge, it’s possible this also affects how Cambridge votes, although it would be difficult for Labour to lose control of the council.

Cambridge has been ranked as the UK’s most unequal city – the “tale of two cities” reference has been used to refer to both this fact and the plans for 150,000 new homes, which could get confusing fast – due to the huge wealth divide and deeply unaffordable housing. Tackling this will be difficult for local government, but more could absolutely be done.

Oxford, often Cambridge’s rival, is the UK’s second-most unequal city, and faces similar problems: a shortage of housing, congestion, a high wealth divide, and poverty. Where Cambridge’s Labour council seems fairly safe, though, the resignation of nine Oxford Labour councillors due to their opposition to Labour’s stance on Gaza was enough to tip the council into no overall control. Few of these councillors are standing again as independents and Labour are likely to retake a majority. 



The London Mayor and Assembly are up for election. None of the London mayoral candidates or parties have signed our Fairness Five pledges yet.

The London election is for mayor and the less-discussed London Assembly, one of the few remaining English authorities to use a proportional voting system after the 2022 Elections Act abolished Supplementary Vote and returned to First Past the Post. 

This switch to FPTP leaves the mayoral election a straightforward Labour vs Conservative battle, with the Conservatives hoping that enough people will be apathetic to Sadiq Khan’s third term that the Conservative Susan Hall will squeak through. 

The London Assembly, however, offers a more representative body. Although London is currently perceived as a progressive city, the thing about London is that it’s large enough that any kind of political movement can get a fair number of people behind it. In a low-turnout election, Reform will be looking to take one or even two of the 11 London-wide list seats, while the Greens and Liberal Democrats aim to expand their collective five. Labour’s strong national polling may actually lose them list seats if they win new constituency seats without dramatically changing their vote share, losing them their two list seats to compensate. 

West Midlands

The West Midlands Combined Authority covers Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton’s Liberal Democrats and Coventry’s Green Party signed our pledges in 2023. No mayoral candidates have yet signed our pledges.

As well as council elections in Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton (all of which have one third of seats up for election), the West Midlands are going to the polls to elect a new mayor.  As mayoral elections have been switched to First Past the Post in 2022 Elections Act, the Conservative/Labour contest is likely to squeeze out other parties. 

The Conservative mayor, Andy Street, has carved out a good reputation for himself, but the national polls seem likely to doom him. 

North East

The new North East Mayoral Combined Authority covers Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, and Sunderland. No political parties in the area have signed our pledges yet.

Newcastle City Council was one of the first local councils to adopt the Socio-Economic Duty, a key campaign ask of ours. The new mayor of the North East role replaces the North of Tyne mayor, where the incumbent, Jamie Driscoll, also adopted the Socio-Economic Duty in 2022, making it the first combined authority to do so. 

Interestingly, Driscoll is running for the new body too, this time as an independent. He’s pitching himself as someone independent from London parties and has a long-standing interest in Community Wealth Building, investing in community hubs using local businesses. If he wins, he’ll become the first independent mayor of a combined authority and it’ll be a big upset for the Labour Party, which controversially barred Driscoll from running as the Labour candidate.

There’s a fairly strong independent tradition in the area, with Independent John McCabe coming third in the last North of Tyne mayoral election, and Driscoll has some name recognition and backing from an interesting coalition of trade unions, green activist groups, and local politicians, but there’s also a strong Conservative vote and a deeply rooted Labour Party, so it’ll be an interesting three-way contest.

Other Mayoral Contests

For completion’s sake, the other mayors  for the East Midlands (a newly created role, likely to be won by Labour) Liverpool City Region (a certain Labour hold) South Yorkshire (likewise) and West Yorkshire (again, a Labour hold). Tees Valley, held by Conservative Ben Houchen (who won the last election with over 70% of the vote) is a key Labour target, but the size of the swing required has them worried. Finally, the newly-created York and North Yorkshire mayor is exactly the sort of contest that needs a fairer voting system; the four main parties all have solid base votes, and it’s difficult to say who’ll split whose vote. The Conservatives will be hoping to win it as Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens split the 64% of the vote they collectively got in the last council elections.  

Overall Picture


All councillors in Dudley are up for election. The Dudley Green Party signed our pledges in 2023. 

A key race for people interested in the national political picture; Dudley is where Labour launched their local election campaign. The council has been Conservative controlled since 2021, with a strong UKIP presence that dwindled into nothing between 2013 and 2016. A good night for Labour will see this council in their hands. 


Half of all seats in Hastings are up for election. No political parties in Hastings have signed our pledges yet. 

Hastings had a volatile political history until 2010, switching between no overall control, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat control in a way that very roughly followed the national swing. 2010 began a 12-year period of Labour control, but 2022 brought in the Greens as Hastings’ largest third-party since 2005. A short-lived Labour-Green coalition ended, followed by the resignation of over half of the Labour group from the party, citing frustration with the direction and actions of the national party. 

The Green-led coalition with the new independents will face a difficult test at this election. Hastings and Rye is target for Labour’s general election campaign and Hastings was namechecked as somewhere Labour wanted to win in their election launch. 


All of Dorset’s seats are up for election. Bournemouth Labour signed our pledges in 2023.

Dorset Council has only had one election since being created in 2019, which gave the Conservatives a one seat majority over second-place Liberal Democrats, a handful of Greens and independents, and a couple of Labour seats. The Liberal Democrats once held much of the South West, and politics-watchers will be interested to see whether Labour’s national poll lead produces a Liberal South West as it did in 1997, or whether Labour can make advances in rural areas.