Local elections and international trade in a year of potential change

Wed 1 May 2024
Posted by: Charlie Bowden, Phil Adnett

In a general election year, the local elections are typically seen as a ‘test run’ , with analysts combing through the results to find evidence of the national trend.

This means that despite the key issues often being locally focused – from potholes to planning to healthcare – the local elections can be a significant reflection of national politics.

Last year, we wrote that the Conservatives lost 49 councils, that Labour had become the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, marking a significant moment for leader Keir Starmer’s efforts to get his party back into Downing Street.

Since then, the Conservatives have changed leader twice. Current prime minister Rishi Sunak will largely be on the defensive, while Starmer will be looking to prove he is still on track to win at the next general election.

Polls explained

This year’s local elections are smaller in scale than previous years, as of the 107 local authorities with elections in 2024, the majority (71%) are only electing a third of their councilors.

We’re unlikely to see an exact replica of the national opinion polls. Polling experts note that Labour has a track record of underperforming their national opinion polling at local elections, with the opposite for the Liberal Democrats, due to the dynamics of regional elections.

Smaller parties, notably the Reform party who are only standing 300 candidates, will also not feature as heavily.

One exception is the Green Party, who are fielding 1,600 candidates. Bristol will be a strong target for the Greens, who also hope that the city yields a second MP for the party in a general election, assuming that it retains Caroline Lucas’ old seat of Brighton Pavillion.

On top of council races, mayoral elections are also taking place in combined authorities on Thursday. Of note are three inaugural elections in areas that haven’t had a regional mayor until now – East Midlands, the North East and York & North Yorkshire – as well as the Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and West Midlands races.

Trade implications

As we explained in our previous article, trade isn’t just a national issue but increasingly one shaped by local and regional politicians.

As such, it plays a role in this week’s local and mayoral elections and it is worth studying the promises of each party on the national level.

Labour land

A repeated phrase by the Opposition when talking about trade policy and strategy is that a Labour government would seek to strike “fewer, better trade deals”.

In his first speech dedicated to trade, shadow business and trade secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, said Labour would follow a trade strategy entwined with industrial strategy, focus on other kinds of trade agreements (as well as FTAs), and give Parliament a more prominent role in the ratification of agreements.

Labour has also promised a ‘closer’ relationship with the EU, although has explicitly ruled out rejoining the customs union. They have also promised a “progressive” trade policy that would include workers’ rights and net zero objectives.

Tory trading

The UK government, under the Conservatives, has broadly followed a post-Brexit agenda that seeks to re-establish the UK as a major player in the trading world.

It has struck several new deals – notably with Australia, New Zealand, the EU (through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement) and with accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Under Sunak, the party has pivoted more towards taking a more skeptical stance on China as a trade partner and looking beyond trade deals. Business and trade secretary Kemi Badenoch emphasised that trade deals are only one part of the wider strategy for imports and exports.

Liberal Democrats

Trade policy issues of the local or general election (whenever it may be). But it is clear that the roles of parties such as the Liberal Democrats could be crucial, so understanding their policies on trade is vital.

The party advocates for a closer and more formal relationship with the EU, with a longer term focus on rejoining the European trade bloc.

The party’s four step plan involves taking “immediate action” to build better relations with Europe – headlined by reforming the Turing scheme – before slowly deepening links to the point where the UK can rejoin the EU.

On broader trade policy, the Lib Dems say they want to put “human rights” at the heart of future trade deals, look to reinstate the 0.7% of national income target and reestablish a Department for International Development.


The results of the locals are more likely to give us an indication of what direction politics is headed. As always, caveats apply to the results and things could change.

However, regardless of who wins which council and mayor election in tomorrow’s elections, local politics matters are increasingly having a knock-on effect on trade.

As we reflect back on this series, we can see that there appears to be a common trend towards giving more power to the UK’s nations and regions to develop their own trade policy. Regional mayors and combined authorities are spending more time on working out how to get businesses selling their goods and services abroad, aided by a Westminster government that appears increasingly willing to let this happen.