“I don’t think it’ll be enough to win the council back this time,” Emily Mort tells me during an afternoon canvassing session in Bolton. “However, I think we’re going to be close enough that next year, we will.” Mort is standing for election in Crompton ward, and despite the fact that she and her agent both broke their legs on the same day two weeks ago – in separate incidents – she is positive about how the campaign is progressing, saying she has seen a “swing towards Labour”.
Labour group leader on the council Nick Peel emphasises that it has been an “incredibly hard-worked election” by Labour activists, who he describes as a “small, committed group of people across the borough”. Chatting outside local Labour hangout The Courthouse, he tells me they are seeing “flaky Tories” on the doorstep: “Plenty of Tories who we lost in 2019 saying I’m coming back to Labour. And quite a lot of Tories who are saying: ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do, not sure. I’m not sure if I’m even going to vote’. And I think that that’s going to be a factor in this election.”
Bolton is currently a no overall control council, with the Conservatives the largest party. It also has a large Independent presence. George Butler – who is standing in Breightmet ward – rapidly takes me through the different local parties represented on the council when he picks me up from the station. The most prominent among them is Farnworth and Kearsley First, which previously held all the seats in the wards of Farnworth and Kearsley but has since splintered, with one of its co-founders Paul Heslop leaving to form yet another new party: One Kearsley. I actually meet Heslop during my visit when he comes to join a group of us having a post-canvassing drink.
“They’ve peaked,” Peel tells me when I ask him about the impact of the Independents. “They’re on the decline now.” He argues that “dissatisfaction with national politics” played a key role in their emergence, particularly relating to Brexit: “The reason for the rise of the independents was exactly the same reason for the rise of the UKIP. It was an alternative, something they hadn’t thought about, a different option. And it’s understandable that people were thinking like that at the time.”
Peel says the target is four gains at this election, which if achieved would make Labour the largest party. This year, a third of councillors are up for election, making it impossible for any one party to gain overall control, but next year will be an ‘all-out’. Peel stresses that he is not thinking about next year yet, although he adds: “We’ve always had the two-year strategy to do very well in this election, become the biggest party and then take control in 2023. So that strategy is still there.”
Next stop on my tour of Greater Manchester is Chorlton Park, one of the 32 wards that make up Manchester City Council. In a very strong area for Labour – the party currently holds 93 of the 96 seats on the council – it was the Chorlton Park candidate who received the most votes of any candidate across the city at last year’s locals.
But this hasn’t always been the case. The ward was previously a Liberal Democrat stronghold, with Labour gaining their first seat in 2011. Deputy leader of the council Joanna Midgley, who is up for re-election in Chorlton Park this year, attributes the swing to Labour partly to the coalition government – “that took away a lot of Lib Dem trust” – but also to the groundwork done by local activists who realised the ward could be flipped.
The group of canvassers I meet for coffee are feeling incredibly positive about the upcoming elections. One of Midgley’s ward colleagues Dave Rawson tells me he saw “overwhelming support” at a session on the previous day. “I don’t think it’s just negativity against the government,” he tell me. “People are also happy with the way that we represent them within this area and the way that Labour represents the people generally in Manchester.” The team pride themselves on their visibility within the community: Midgley says they are “heavily involved” in local community groups, while Rawson notes that their approach of weekly doorknocking sessions throughout the year has “paid dividends”.
Midgley tells me that the party is aiming to make one gain at this election to take their total to 94 and that the “signs are good” though they “never take any vote for granted”. Asked about shifting political demographics in the city, the group are relaxed. Rawson says that Labour had all 96 seats on the council until very recently: “So it’s not really a shift, because we’re so strong as a Labour city. All the MPs have majorities of 30-odd thousand.”
Local party chair Pete Shilton Godwin acknowledges that “at the margins” there may be some who vote Green and suggests that this may be generational, with some who joined the party in 2015 now choosing the Greens over Labour. Midgley notes that the Greens came second in Chorlton Park at last year’s elections (though she doesn’t mention quite how distant a second it was: the Green candidate received 773 votes compared to Labour’s 3819).
Leaving the Chorlton Park team, I hop on a bus to Stockport. As in Bolton, no party has overall control of Stockport council, but here Labour lead the council, despite having one less councillor than the Liberal Democrats, the current largest party. On a walk through the town centre, council leader Elise Wilson talks a mile a minute about Labour’s regeneration plans, including expanding the capacity of Stockport’s railway station and revamping its high street. “Go big or go home,” Wilson tells me. The passion she feels about the work she is doing is palpable.
Sitting down for coffee with fellow councillor Amanda Peers, I ask Wilson how the campaign is going. “We’re optimistic, but realistic,” she says. “This is an election of thirds, but that could still see significant change for a council that is as finely balanced as Stockport is.” She notes that they have had a positive response on the doorstep in all their target wards, something she attributes to people starting to see the impact of the Labour-led council: “They’re feeling the difference. They’re seeing it, they’re feeling it, they’re smelling it. And that is translating on the doorstep.”
Peers – who currently represents Manor ward but is standing in Brinnington and Central ward this time round – tells me that she has seen Labour signs up in areas she wouldn’t normally expect to: “People are listening to what we’ve got to say, which is the important thing.” She notes that David Meller, Labour councillor in Cheadle Hulme North, is “anxious, but quietly confident”, having won his seat by two votes in 2018. This is the only real indication the two give me of nerves within the local party.
As in Bolton, Stockport will have an all-out election next year. Wilson is “really positive” about this, as much of the regeneration work developed by her council will have started by then, making the case for Labour delivering for the people of Stockport “even stronger”. She adds: “I think it’ll be an interesting couple of years for elections. But all to play for, absolutely all to play for.”